The TV is mumbling nonsense. Martin sits in his blue recliner clicking aimlessly from channel to channel. One channel has a commercial about double cheese burgers and fries. An ice-filled cup is filled with dark, crackling soda. A woman takes a satisfying drink. A man bites a massive hunk out of the burger. Martin's chin drops and his hand goes to his belly.
Suddenly he is up and in the kitchen. He picks up his wallet to inspect it: a few receipts and now three one-dollar bills. Three dollars. The bank statement might not offer much more. He looks across the counter top items and their sticky note dollar amounts. He quickly estimates how much money he would have if he sold everything for its asking price. The thought of having all that money makes him hopeful. But then, realizing that even selling all of these things and getting full price would barely cover Juliette's Portland trip, the glimmer of hope goes out.
He grabs his keys.
Martin pulls forward and surveys the drive-thru menu. He shuts his eyes and grimaces against the squeal of his brakes.
The intercom crackles to life. A tired teenage boy speaks.
“Welcome to Tuco's Tacos, order whenever you're ready.”
Martin leans his head out the window.
“Hi, yeah, can I get three bean and beef burritos, please? No lettuce and no sour cream.”
“Alright, would you like to try one of our cinnamon crispy twisters?”
The question dribbles out of the speaker like it is being read from a card for the first time, and like the teenager is reading it against his will.
“No, thank you,” Martin says.
“Okay. Then your total will be $1.77.”
“Did you get the no lettuce and no sour cream?” Martin asks.
The voice continues, garbled, and Martin hears the word “window” near the end.
After pulling forward and giving the kid two of the three dollar bills from his wallet, Martin takes the bag. He circles around through the parking lot to a shadowy space under two of the six trees in the lot. The parking space doesn't have any street lights near it, and what light does reach the area is mostly blocked by the trees. It is dark, quiet, and it isn't the first time Martin has parked here.
Martin takes the first burrito out of the bag, the smell of warmed flour tortilla already filling the truck before he even unwraps it. As he peels the wrapping open, more smells emerge. He can smell the beans, black beans pressed into refried bean paste. He can smell the sauce, sharp, lots of tomato to it. Then other smells pass through and he lets out a sigh through his nostrils. He lays the burrito down on his leg and opens one end. He knows what he will find before he sees it.
Lettuce. Shredded green strands stuck together by globs of thick white sour cream. Not only are there the two things he wanted to avoid, but the burrito appears to have more of each item than usual. Martin puts the burrito on the center console and removes the second. It is the same, loaded with extra lettuce and sour cream. The third burrito is a chicken fajita burrito, with lettuce, sour cream, and a corn tortilla. He leans back in the driver's seat, lets his head press into the head rest. He considers walking back into the shop and telling whoever is working the counter his problem. He considers doing so loudly, obnoxiously, tipping over chairs and flipping tables and jamming any spare lettuce he can find up the drive-thru worker's ass. He smiles at the thought before it disappears.
He picks up the first burrito and takes a bite. He spent two of his last three dollars buying burritos that aren't right and he doesn't have the strength to do anything about it. He just takes his frustration out on the two beef burritos, chewing without mercy. The burrito and carrots at lunch and the three burritos here in the parking lot are the only things Martin has eaten today. Ever since he ate the fajita mixture from Javier's restaurant salad bar in second grade, he has tried to avoid cooked peppers and onions. Folded over one of Javier's toilets, he tried to focus on the clear and clean water and not on the stickiness of the toilet seat, or the hints of yellow under the lid and at the edges. He tried not to breathe through his nose. When the first heaves rolled up through his stomach and chest and the first tube of vomit sprayed into the once clean water below, he tried to ignore the spray hitting his face. Three heaves later, his knees sore against the bright red and yellow tile floor, his puke an unnatural, shining yellow illuminated by the intense overhead lights, he swore a silent oath to never eat fajitas, especially the grilled peppers and onions therein, ever again. For decades he kept this promise.
With his taste buds and stomach already offended at his allowance of sour cream and lettuce, the chicken fajita burrito is non-negotiable. His hunger permitted the canceling effects of the amazing beans and beef against the terrible lettuce and sour cream. The health benefits of lettuce and the calories in the sour cream make them more bearable. But as he unwraps the chicken fajita burrito, he doesn't even take a bite. He paid most of his limited money to get nothing he wanted, but he still can't walk back into Tuco's to complain. Instead, he rolls down his driver side window to throw the burrito into a nearby bush.
Before he can throw it, he notices movement across the parking lot. In a lot of hundreds of parking spaces, he is in his truck, another pair of cars far off to his right sit next to each other, and a final car, by itself, is sitting at the curb in front of a closed craft shop. There is someone in the lone car. It was the person's movement that drew Martin's attention. The car is an older Cadillac, long and wide and low to the road. It is a car that men would've driven with pride originally, a symbol of buying power and financial security. It would've showed support for American manufacturing. It is a car old women would come to drive, as the price dropped, due to its size and structural integrity, and the connection to a bygone era. A classic gas-guzzling tank of a car that, when given a few thousand dollars of shining rims and monstrous speakers, with a hydraulic lift system thrown in for extra pimp status, would come to be stereo-typically associated with a different group of people.
The Cadillac is low on its lift, the undercarriage only a few inches from the asphalt. The lights are off, but a nearby street lamp is shining enough light into the driver side window that Martin can see the driver is wearing a blue shirt, possibly a jersey. The driver's forearm appears, shining in the street lamp light, when he reaches for something across the top of his dashboard.
Headlights glare at Martin from the lot entrance. Another car, a black Honda Civic, pulls in and slows to a stop. The headlights go out, but after a few seconds the car moves again, in a long circle, around the edges of the parking lot until it gets to the Cadillac. The car pulls up alongside the Cadillac so both drivers' doors face each other. It stops only briefly, long enough for windows to go down and items to be passed back and forth between the two drivers.
Martin puts the fajita burrito on the center console and stares.
“What the hell?”
Once the items are passed, the Cadillac stays and the second car continues its long circle around the rest of the lot before heading back onto the street and back in the direction from where it came.
The Cadillac driver isn't moving. He is sitting and waiting, and it only takes three minutes for another car to enter the lot and take the same route as the first. Another exchange, this one taking a few seconds longer, and then the car leaves. As it is leaving, Martin catches more movement, a man walking on foot from a side alley between stores. The man stops, looks around the lot, and continues along the sidewalk toward the craft store. He stops and turns, looking in the crafts store window, until the man in the Cadillac rolls down the passenger window and calls out to him. The man looks left and right before stepping to the window. Martin watches the man drop something onto the passenger seat. The man leans into the window and the two exchange a few words. The man takes something jams it deep into his pocket, pockets his other hand, and walks away with his head down. He disappears back into the alley.
Martin looks around. He wonders if he is watching drugs deals take place, if they can be this obvious and out in the open and not draw attention. He turns to look behind him, half expecting to see a SWAT team moving in, rifles and shotguns ready. He listens for approaching sirens, waits to see the flashing of blue and red in the night air.
Over the next twelve minutes, two more exchanges take place. Nothing, no sirens, no lights, no police response of any kind. No one is seeing what Martin is seeing. No one notices. Or if they do notice, they don't care. These men are trading money for illegal drugs and none of them have gone to jail or prison, yet. Martin shakes his head at how easy it is.
Looking at the Cadillac, Martin wonders what else is in the car. He wonders if it has anything like the car from the news, half a million dollars, guns, drugs? Maybe there are bags and bags of cash and cocaine in the trunk. Maybe there is a body.
Martin freezes. He hears the footsteps before he sees who is making them, but there is suddenly a figure on the sidewalk to his left, less than twenty feet from the car. The first thing his eyes see is orange. It's a man, or maybe a teenager, walking along the RiteAid store front and surveying the lot the way the others did. But while the others wore dark, nondescript clothing, things that would be hard to pinpoint by a witness, the teenager is wearing a bright red and black flat-billed hat, baggy red pants, and a fiery orange hoodie. When the kid pulls his sagging pants up, Martin can see bright white shoes. Martin has two quick judgments: the boy is either a gang member or he is trying to be.
Or maybe a clown.
Gang-banging peacock flashes in his mind.
Martin leans over to his glove box. It opens and he fumbles his hand through it looking for a pen and a piece of paper. He looks at the license plate of the Cadillac. He isn't even sure why, and as his pen touches the paper he considers putting it all back in the glove box and driving back to his apartment and sitting in his recliner with his friend Jack Daniels and whatever pacifying TV shows happen to be on tonight.
The peacock approaches the Cadillac's passenger window and leans in. The forearms move across the dashboard again. This exchange is different. The peacock doesn't give anything and doesn't get anything. He steps back, his arms out to his side, asking a question, “What was I supposed to do?” The driver is saying something and the peacock shakes his head. He is embarrassed. He is being scolded. As the boy's head drops slightly, Martin can hear his own father's voice chastising him, questioning his work ethic, his decisions. He shakes his head and forces his eyes back to the license plate. He squints against the darkness. The first three symbols are numbers, he thinks, maybe a six and then an eight. They might both be sixes or they might both be eights. He curls his hands together to form a spyglass and squints a little harder. He closes his left eye. His right eye is stronger. Narrowing the field of vision helps and he is almost certain, six-eight-one, then E-T-N. Oregon plates.
Martin drops the chicken burrito out the window onto the ground. As he does, the peacock leans back into the Cadillac's window. His hands are moving as he talks. He is trying to explain himself, trying to find mercy. He pulls his hand out of the window and points in Martin's direction. Martin stiffens. The boy walked right by him on the sidewalk, maybe he saw Martin and wants to let the driver know. Maybe he thought Martin was a lookout, or a cop.
The Cadillac's headlights go on and Martin jolts upright, kicking his feet into the gas pedal and brake. He grabs for his keys and jams them clumsily into the hard plastic around the truck's ignition. He is still watching the Cadillac when he finds the ignition slot. He stabs the key into the metal but it won't go. He pushes harder, frantically, and hears the Cadillac's engine turn over. The peacock stands up and turns toward Martin. The Cadillac drops into gear and pulls forward.
“Shit,” Martin hisses, “no no no no!” The key still won't go. He finally looks down and realizes he is trying with the wrong key. He switches over to the correct key and jams it in. When he looks up, the Cadillac has covered half the distance between them, now about fifty feet away. Martin turns the key. The engine whines twice before starting, but it is too late. The Cadillac's beams are shining directly into the cab now. Before Martin can throw the truck into reverse, flashing blue and red erupt from his rear view mirrors.
Two police cruisers appear from a nearby side street and screech into the parking lot. The Cadillac makes a hard left and accelerates across the empty parking spots toward the lot's other exit. Martin watches the Cadillac turn and sees an orange and red blur running toward the alley between stores. In the rush, the teenager loses one of his shoes. It tumbles white and shining onto the pavement. The boy turns and starts back to get it, but the cruisers split and one has him framed by its headlights. He leaves the shoe and scrambles back to the alley and disappears. The cruiser mounts the curb and follows the boy into the alley.
The Cadillac fishtails into the street. Oncoming traffic has to slam on their brakes and swerve to avoid colliding head on, and the night air fills with screeching tires and revving engines and the piercing cry of the cruiser's sirens as the chase tears off into the city.
Martin finally moves. He's been rigid, a motionless prey hiding from swirling predators. He breathes out suddenly. He was holding his breath. His body shudders and cries out for air and he gasps to appease it. The adrenaline surge is overwhelming. He can feel his pulse in his eyes, in his hands and feet, and the two burritos with their sour cream-covered lettuce suddenly try to make their way back up from his stomach and reappear. He grabs his mouth, clenches. He can feel the acid bubbling up in the back of his throat. But the rebellion stops. He breathes through his nose in long hisses and the food returns slowly back down into his stomach.
When the Cadillac was rolling toward him, Martin envisioned it drifting slowly by as a shotgun or an Uzi barrel appeared from one of the windows. He imagined flashes of light and deafening booms and bullets and broken glass and twisting metal crashing all around him. But thinking back on that moment, that exact moment when he realized the boy pointed him out and the car was rolling toward him with violent purpose, he froze but he wasn't scared. He didn't know what was going to happen but he wasn't scared. He was curious. He grips the steering wheel and squeezes. There is a deep and low hum rising in his ears. It is a dull bellow from somewhere dark, a charge of readiness rippling through his muscles and senses and mind. He recognizes it. He has felt it before. He was twelve. He and his father had hiked eight miles up from their hunting camp into the higher elevation barren ridges and peaks of the mountains of eastern Oregon. They were following elk, rifles on their backs, in the light snow of late fall. It was Martin's first big hunt. When he and his father sat down on a ridge, Martin was tasked with scoping the ridge one thousand meters across the valley. He had stiffened up then, too. He had held his breath. He had wondered if he would see an elk, and what would happen if he saw one. He peered through the binoculars and knew he would see one. He felt it, the way tonight he'd felt something was going on in the parking lot. Before the elk appeared in his sights, the deep and low hum rose from somewhere in his head. The sizzle touched every part of his body and widened his eyes and opened his ears and then there, behind a long gray boulder, antlers moved. They shook back and forth, and then floated gradually forward until a fully grown bull elk appeared. Off to the right a few meters, two females were following. He whispered to his father what he could see. His own words sounded strange in his ears, as did his father's excited response. The air itself seemed to shift in color and tone, darkening around him at the edges of his vision. Sounds began to warp and merge together into a strange new language Martin had never heard before, and the ridge line and sky pulsed and swayed in color-mixing waves until nothing he had seen or thought he'd seen seemed trustworthy. Later, even when pulling the sled with the elk's hind quarters, it didn't feel real. Even when his lungs burned in the cold mountain air and his legs and back doubled him over with pain, he couldn't stop asking himself if it was all real.
Martin looks around. The parking lot is silent now and all other cars have gone. Martin wonders if there was a Cadillac or a series of drugs deals or a police chase at all. The rush is still there, fading into the many hidden caverns of his awareness, but with so much something and now so much nothing, he wonders if he went home and finished the bottle of Jack and fell asleep in the recliner. He wonders if any of this is real.
He starts the truck. When the headlights click on, the Rite Aid and craft store windows light up, reflecting some of the light back toward Martin and reflecting some onto the sidewalk and asphalt. Martin is suddenly certain he didn't imagine the drug dealers and car chases. In the middle of the sidewalk, now bright and white under the glow of the headlights, is the boy's white shoe. Martin shifts into gear and eases forward along the curb. He watches the lot entrances, checks his rear view mirror, listens for the sound of returning sirens. He hears and sees nothing as he pulls up alongside the white shoe. He knows he should leave it. Even as he is opening his door he knows he should simply drive home and forget about all of this. When he walks over and reaches down for the shoe, he is wondering what he is doing. When he tosses the shoe onto the passenger seat and drives out of the lot, he is still shaking his head, confused at this other person he is watching live through his body. He curses into the rear view mirror. The reflection smiles back.
Martin is back on the jack hammer. The sight of workers entering the trailer and leaving in a fury is commonplace now. The remaining crew members have stopped watching the dramas unfold. It barely warrants a look or a shake of the head.
Jerry walks up as one of the many layoffs of the day makes his way down the trailer stairs and toward the parking lot.
“It's brutal, man. It's goddamned ruthless and brutal.”
Martin nods, but the nod is empty. He is numb to it. Whatever happens, happens.
“Hey man,” Jerry continues, “some of the guys are going to meet at Bailey's tonight, try to drink our troubles away. You interested?”
Martin lays the jack hammer down and takes off his helmet to wipe his brow.
“Eh, I don't know, Jerry. The thought of hanging out in a bar with a bunch of sad guys doesn't sound super appealing.”
“What? You have a date with a dude or something? Come on, Marty, come out with the guys, have a drink, shoot the shit, it will be good for you.”
“Come on, man...”
“No we get it, it's cool. You've been acting super weird lately, weirder than usual and now it all makes sense. You've met someone, a tall, dark, handsome stranger who has shown you a love deeper and more powerful than you ever thought possible.”
“That's,” Martin starts.
“You two are in love and you're getting ready to run away together.”
“That's exactly it,” Martin finishes.
“And tonight is the night you both leave this town and all your troubles behind... tonight is the night you begin your new life together?”
“It's just a few drinks with your friends, Marty. Come have a drink with your friends.”
The man stomping down the stairs from the trailer now is Carl Sims. Martin isn't sure how many years Carl has been with the company, but he knows it is more than ten. Carl was there when it was Bell Construction.
Martin puts his helmet back on.
“I'm really just not feeling up to it.
“Come on, just a few drinks. You're a bachelor now, start acting like one.”
“Dude, don't be a little bitch.”
“First drink is on me.”
“I said no, Jerry, Jesus! You do still understand the word no, right? N... O... It's what adults say when someone asks if they want to do something they don't want to do...”
“Whoa dude, easy...”
“They say no and then normal people say okay and get a clue and move on. Just move on, Jerry. Move on.”
Jerry is caught staring, wondering if Martin is playing some sort of game. He smiles and when Martin doesn't smile back, he has his answer. He starts to say something else. Martin's eyes tell him that wouldn't be a good idea. When the thoughts settle and his options dwindle down to the obvious that there is nothing more to say, he walks away. Martin is reaching the end of some invisible rope. His birthday, his relationships, his job, his life, nothing is as he wants it to be.
When he turns back to his ditch he checks his watch... 3:56. Almost quitting time, almost the survival of another day. A voice calls to Martin from behind him. It is one of the two big men in dark suits.
“Martin Bell?” the man asks, raising his chin toward Martin. When Martin nods the man waves him over. “Please come with me.”
This is it, he's being called in. It's over. When he checked his bank account online, he found thirty-eight dollars left in his account. He still has his single dollar bill in his wallet. Thirty-nine dollars to his name. He's at the end of his money, his job, his caring. He drops the jack hammer and follows the man to the trailer.
Inside the office, a small table has been set up for the site manager and the other two suits Martin saw step out of the big black SUV a few days ago. They each have a stack of files and paperwork laid out before them. The woman, Susan, speaks first.
“Hi, Martin, please have a seat.”
A single chair has been set in front of their head table. It has all the delicacy and care of an all-cement interrogation room. But this is not an interrogation or a trial. This is the sentencing.
Martin looks to the only other man not wearing a suit – his boss, Mark Bowman.
“My dad would be proud of you, Mark. You're doing a bang-up job with the company he built.”
“Just hear us out, Martin, before you get too emotional here. This is a tough time for us, for all of us. There are factors in play here that no one could have predicted. Banks are closing, our lenders are cutting off lines of credit...”
Mark's voice fades in Martin's mind. He hears the deep hum inside his head returning. It drowns out the voices of the panel members almost completely. Susan's mouth moves, then Mark's, then the other man in the suit, then Mark's again. Occasionally, a word slips through and Martin hears things like “leverage” and “personnel” and “retention” and the voices slowly fade back in. He hears “Would that be helpful for you, Martin? Martin?”
“Does that make sense, Martin?” Susan asks.
Martin comes back to full attention.
“Sure. You are firing me.”
“Well, we wanted to give you some time to look at other options and...”
“Oh sorry, you are firing me, but out of respect for me or my dad or something, you want me to keep working for a few more weeks. Is that right?”
“We will really need your help as we finish up this site,” Susan says.
Martin looks at her. He smiles, lets out a single laugh. He holds his stare, straight into her eyes, and waits for her to look away or be quiet.
“Marty... we're trying to help you,” Mark says.
“Help me, well... thank you so much. I feel so... helped. You don't know it but you are actually helping me. This is something I wasn't willing to do myself, but now... here we are. I know a lot of people stormed out of here violently, pissed off, but believe me when I say this... thank you. Thank you all. I look forward to our continued success as we work together toward excellence, with discipline and integrity, as we finish up this site.”
The three shift in their seats, confused. They glance to each other because looking at Martin's awkward, frozen grin and stare is too uncomfortable. He is a prisoner thanking the Warden for his abuse, and it is hard to tell if he is being violently sarcastic or insanely sincere.
“Well...” Susan starts, clearing her throat and stalling with a few “ums” before she continues. “We are... very glad to hear that, Martin. And let me just say that your work ethic and service to this company...”
Martin doesn't keep listening. While Susan continues her empty sentiments, Martin rises from his seat and steps toward the desk. The three flinch slightly and go to get up. One of the large security guards steps forward, ready to grab Martin if he tries anything violent.
Martin doesn't try anything violent. He grabs his paperwork from the desk. He turns without a word. He walks out, away from Susan's comments, away from Mark's calls for him to come back. He walks quietly out into the warm fall air. He walks down the trailer steps past Jerry.
“What did they say?” Jerry asks.
Martin ignores him. Jerry calls after him. Martin hears nothing. He sees only the pavement directly in front of him. He hears only the scream in his own head.
Martin stands in his kitchen. He is surveying his craigslist items. He has a legal pad and he crosses off his heater. He crosses off the “$40” and writes in “$30.” Then he crosses out the “$30.” Then he crosses it out a little more. His pencil scribbles wildly until the number sinks into the shining gray graphite. He keeps scribbling. Even after that part of the paper is thinning and warping, he is still scribbling, harder and faster and more violently, until the pressure is too great. The pencil tip breaks. He stops, motionless. Thirty dollars use to be less than about an hour's worth of work. Thirty dollars used to be nothing. Martin thinks about the number of times he threw away thirty dollars on nothing. He runs through a list of five things quickly, then presses the broken pencil tip back into the paper. He leans into the counter top, presses his hand into the pencil, drives his fingers down with all of his weight. The end of the pencil breaks off and tumbles off the edge of the counter. He joins the rest of the pencil with the notepad and turns, hurling them at the refrigerator. Magnets fall to the floor and the pictures they were holding follow. The pencil plinks to the linoleum and rolls up against the living room carpet. The pad falls on its face with a slap, and the refrigerator's compressor kicks on.
A primal growl rises from Martin's chest. He wants to let it out, wants to open the growl up into a snarl, into a roar, into the cleansing desolation of an angry god. He wants to destroy the world.
He brings it back down. He calms the bubbling magma beneath the volcano once again. This was another tremor. This was the mountain warning the villagers to evacuate, to seek shelter elsewhere. The real eruption is still to come.
Martin drops into his recliner. He hits the remote's power button without putting down his bottle of Jack. A car commercial appears. When the announcer gets to his punchline, about how this car will change the world and save humanity and redefine what it means to be human, Martin takes another drink. His termination papers are crumpled in between his hand and the bottle. He likes feeling the paper as he drinks, likes feeling it slide across the bottle's weirdly shaped neck. The papers crinkle as his grip tightens. He pictures the bottle giving in to his pressure and popping. He imagines it spilling the rest of the whiskey on him while the jagged edges of the bottle's broken neck dive into the flesh of his hands, in between fingers, under skin and tendon and through veins and capillaries and nerves. He imagines the leading edge of glass digging deepest, hitting bone. He will bleed into the paper. He will blot out whatever the ink says now with his own deep crimson story.
He is drinking like a man being forced by his arm and hand to drink, like it's not his arm and not his pain and not his anger and fear. A force is driving the bottle up to his lips and up again. The alcohol is quieting a distant voice that is telling him to stop, that is telling him this isn't the way through to better times. That voice is being smothered under a blanket of broken conversations with Victoria, smothered like their love for each other. He has given in to this other force and he wants to obey. The bottle hits his lips every few seconds, but the drinking isn't making the buzz in his head go away. If anything, the sound is growing. It is spreading through his mind and scratching out all of the unwanted thoughts. But there are so many and the pencil is growing dull. Another pull from the bottle sharpens it a little and the stain spreads. His conversation with Victoria blackens under the alcohol. Thoughts of the money for Jules, the money for rent and for food and for life, all get scribbled over. The dark pencil is carving long furrows in the paper of Martin's mind. It carves out trenches in memories of Jerry and Bruce and the times they shared on the site and in bars and while watching fights. It digs into the loss of dad's company, the end of a lifetime of work. It blackens the image of his mother's body in the hospital bed. It blackens the image of the flowers on her chest in her pale blue dress in that dark brown casket. The alcohol swallows up the outline of her headstone, of Victoria and Jules and Hillary holding hands in the grass beside it.
The bottle hits his lips, bangs against his teeth. He spills some of it down his chin and onto his shirt and sighs the drinker's sigh. The darkness is nearly complete. The black will take him soon, take him into the morning of a new day where he will have to face all of these things again and again.
Before the edges of his vision close in, Hillary's face is there. She holds up her bracelet and smiles. She goes in for a hug and squeezes the air from Martin's chest. She dances away and looks back, tells him not to be sad on his birthday. She holds a fishing rod with a fish on the hook. She dances around a fire and sings to him.
“No,” Martin says, shaking his head.
She climbs into his lap and plays with the scruff on his chin. She falls asleep in his arms.
“No,” he growls.
The dark edges of his vision move in. They bleed into Hillary's smooth white skin, clouding the beauty and pulling her below the surface of the rising waters of Martin's anger. Her hair floats. The water crawls up her neck, up her cheeks to her ears and her chin and wraps itself around her. Martin squeezes the bottle and the growl rises again and Hillary's mouth is gone, then her cheeks and eyes, then her nose. She slips below the surface and Martin can't pull her back.
He roars to his feet, flinging the crossword puzzle from his lap to the wall and down onto the unfinished bookshelf and its pile of random books. He throws the recliner over, breaks the lamp. He spots the TV, spots the commercial and the uselessness of the thing and knows the perfect place for his useless bottle. His arm winds back and he steps into a vicious throw, and the bottle rolls through the air leaving a spray of whiskey splashing behind it. The bottle flips end over end and slams into the wall behind the TV. The bottom end rips through the drywall and the bottle sticks there, its spout leaning out over the TV's many open ports and exposed electrical ingredients. When the whiskey leaks out and into the device, Martin heaves and clenches his fists. When the first smoke tails wave in the hidden breezes of the front speakers, Martin knows what is coming. He let the bottle go hoping for an explosion of glass and fire and destruction. He wanted sparks and flames, wanted to know that the bottle would never again give him whiskey and the TV would never pacify his boredom. But all he got was the thunk of the bottle going through the painted sheet rock. The commercial is still playing, and once the bottle's down turned spout pours enough fluid into the TV's electrical components, a series of crackles and hisses send the screen to black.
The hum in Martin's head peaks. He hears nothing else. He sees nothing but the TV's reflective glass surface warping his features and telling him what a clown he is, what a monster he is. He sees his image, backlit by the kitchen light, warped by the curved glass so he is pinched at the ends of his body and thick in the middle.
Martin steps toward the mocking glass and crouches down. He wraps his hands around the TV's base and bends his legs so he can drive the TV up off of its platform. He positions his hands and drops his chin on the top of the TV. He winces against the weight on his sore back but he doesn't stop until the glass and plastic beast is up at chin level. The lift brings the TV's electrical cord beyond its reach capacity and it pops free from the wall, and in that moment of freedom, Martin lunges forward. His stomach flexes and his chest and shoulders drop, bending him over at the waste and sending the massive TV crashing through the entertainment center. The wood cracks and splinters, the DVD player bursts under the crush, and the thick glass screen shatters. The sound of bursting plastic and glass doesn't have a chance to settle before Martin presses his palms into the wall for balance and begins to stomp. His boot smashes the TV's plastic casing. He feels the wood splinter and crumble, feels the glass shards grind into the floor and fight back against the rubber of his boots. He feels a few shards lodge in the rubber and the thought that they might go through the sole of his boots and into his foot only makes him stomp harder.
Let it come, he thinks. Let it jam into my foot and sever an artery and leave me be.
He rips the whiskey bottle from the wall and slams it down into the carnage. Again, the bottle doesn't break, not until Martin stomps into it. Its shards mix with the TV until the paper label on the neck and the body are twisted and crumpled reminders of what had been.
It is less than a minute before Martin is forcing hot air out through wheezing gasps and stomping through the crushed plastic and wires into the carpet below. He notices the booming sound and the walls shaking and realizes the noise is from him. He peels his hands off the wall and gives one upturned corner of the TV one more obliterating stomp before stepping back to survey what he has done.
Martin rips his keys off of the counter and is out in his truck, slamming the door and cranking it into gear, before the TV stops smoking.
He clicks on the headlights. He ignores the red light telling him to fasten his seat belt. His fingers are tingling and he isn't sure if it's from the whiskey or the rage. He punches the power button on the stereo system, quieting the cackling DJ. He doesn't stop at the four stop signs on his way toward the bar. The two traffic lights are green. Martin dares them to turn red before he gets to them. He wants them to turn red. The roar of the engine is nothing against the roar in his head.
The whiskey is playing with his sense of time and he is still going too fast when he sees the turn into Bailey's Pub. He locks up the brakes and sets the tires screaming against the asphalt. The truck is still sliding when he pulls the wheel to the right, thumping up over the entrance rise and fishtailing into the lot. He nearly clips the back end of a Ford F-150 and a small Nissan. Two people jump back in fear, and then wave their hands at Martin. He can't make out what they yell, but he doesn't care. The tires grab and roll smoothly again and Martin guides the truck into a parking space near the back door of the bar. The sign is illuminated, “Bailey's Pub,” with a small “Open” sigh flashing beneath it. There are enough cars in the lot to tell Martin the place is busy tonight.
It doesn't matter. One person or a hundred people, it doesn't matter. As he walks to the door he sees his online bank statement blinking in his mind again. Thirty-eight dollars. Thirty-eight dollars.
He opens the door.
When he steps inside, before the door can shut, Jerry and Bruce spot him. Jerry waves him over to their table.
“Well look who it is, Mr. quiet psycho,” Jerry says. As the greeting leaves his mouth, he sees Martin's face. He tries to laugh off the psycho part and he slaps Martin on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. He grins at Martin, and waves his free hand over toward one of the free seats at the table. “I'm glad you came buddy, I was a little worried about you when you left the site.”
“But we knew the free drink offer would be too good to pass up,” Bruce says. His eyes meet Jerry's and as Martin sinks into the booth, they raise their eyebrows at each other.
“Yeah, I knew the offer of a free drink would get you down here,” Jerry echoes.
“Turns out your offer was too good to pass up,” Martin says. The whiskey smell hits Jerry first, hard enough that he has to clear his throat as he sits down.
“So what's the word, Mr. Bell?” Bruce asks, just as Martin's breath hits him. He sees Martin's eyes, dilated and slow in their scanning. He sees Martin's head swaying slightly. Martin isn't usually the one to get wasted with the guys, especially in public. He tries to stop himself from asking his question but it's been ready to come out all evening and he is trying to remember the last time he saw Martin Bell drunk.
“What did they tell you in the office?” he asks.
Jerry chokes on his beer.
“Jesus, Bruce, the man just walked in. Chill out for a second. Marty, whatcha drinking tonight?”
“Something dark and strong,” Martin says.
Jerry lets out a single burst of forced laughter. “Just the way I like my women, Frank? Frank? Can we get a round of whiskey Cokes?” He waves again and calls out his order again. Frank, behind the bar, finally sees him and waves his acknowledgment.
“Oh we are gonna have fun tonight, boys. Martin freakin Bell is out, he looks ready to party, and this place is going to oblige him!”
“You guys get called in yet?” Martin asks.
The question takes the air out of Jerry's deflecting celebration.
“Nope, not yet. As of tonight we are still employed. Like we said, we're the friggin best. There is always room for the best, amen?”
“Amen!” Bruce yells.
Martin shrugs and drinks to that. He won't tell them he's been fired just yet. His quiet reaction after leaving the little corporate trailer powwow could have been a sign that he was angry, that he was frustrated, that he was fired. But he is always quiet. People often ask him if he is mad when he isn't mad, it is a vibe he gives off now. He was quiet but he was calm. He didn't throw anything, break anything, swear or scream or attack anyone, he simply walked to his car and drove away. In the tangled haze of his rage-filled whiskey thoughts, he decides to keep them in the dark a little while longer.
Bruce and Jerry slam their glasses down on the table and growl out the whiskey burn. Martin sets his glass down and sighs. As they slam their glasses down, the bell at the front door rings. Martin and Bruce can see who it is walking in. It is Shawn Mackay, Big Mack, scanning the room. The way the door swings over into the wall next to it, and the way Shawn is swaying from foot to foot, he is either angry or drunk. He looks a little like Martin.
His scanning stops at the bar and he stomps over and joins two other men there. He orders his first drink. He demands it, loudly. Martin watches him and smirks. He isn't the only one looking to retake some measure of power tonight.
“Oh Lord, here we go,” Bruce says.
Jerry turns to look.
“Big Mack,” he says, shaking his head. He turns back to the table. “He doesn't seem to be his normal, cheerful self tonight, does he?”
Martin and Bruce both nod, but Martin's eyes stay on Shawn longer than the others. He watches Shawn demand his drink, watches as his friends try to agree with everything he says and try not to anger him further. He watches as Shawn gulps down the drink and immediately demands another.
Bruce hits his beer again.
“Some guys can't handle doing their job and can't handle losing their job.”
“You ladies behave while I'm gone,” Jerry says, standing and grabbing his crotch, “I gotta take a piss.”
“Hurry back or you'll miss the circle-jerk,” Bruce calls after him.
Martin is still watching Shawn when he asks Bruce, “Hey man, does your wife still work at the DMV?”
“Yep, eleven years and she hasn't killed anyone yet.”
Martin glances sideways. He sees a red Cadillac swerving away from police cars.
“Is she allowed to look up license plates, like... track down a car's owner?”
Bruce puts his drink down. He is confused by the question, a little worried.
“Some guy cut you off on your way to work this morning or something?”
“No, nothing like that, it's just I...” Martin stops, his sober brain poking through. This is not the time to be asking these sorts of questions. He reconsiders and decides he probably shouldn't be drunk and pissed off when he tries to get his friend's wife to break the law for his own personal drug dealer hunt.
“Yeah, you know what?” he starts, “sorry, never mind. That can't be legal. Sorry I asked.”
“Now wait a minute,” Bruce says, putting his hands up. “I didn't say she couldn't do it. I don't really know, actually, but I can ask her. Just who is it we're hunting down, here?”
“No, no, forget it, it's stupid. I don't want to get Sheila in trouble. Forget I brought it up.”
Now Bruce is getting curious.
“Wait a second, wait... now Marty, is this search for... a woman's license plate number and address and maybe, I don't know, phone number, by chance?”
Martin smiles. Bruce offered a perfect alibi. Martin hadn't even considered an alibi, hadn't considered what excuse he was going to use for needing the license plate number looked up before asking the question. He shakes his head at how stupid he is. But Bruce's excuse works, he will take it.
“You saucy minx, you met a girl and didn't even get her number or anything, didn't you? Didn't you?”
“Well, you know, it all happened so fast, she was there and then she was gone. I saw her at Safeway and before I could...”
“Say no more, my friend, say no more.”
“I saw her license plate and it kind of just, stuck in my head, so...”
“She was good enough to get you memorizing license plate numbers? Heh, you got something stuck in your head.”
“Come on man, it's probably nothing. She's probably happily married with three kids and a dog and her husband is a underwear model doctor and she lives in a mansion.”
Bruce finishes off his beer and brings it down to the table like a judge with a gavel.
“It's fate, totally. I get it, dude, I totally get it!” Bruce laughs and slaps Martin on the back. “I love it, I friggin love it! Martin Bell, back on the prowl. Good for you, dude, after the couple of years you've had, good for you. My man, back on the hunt, I love it. Sounds like you're a little out of practice but you'll get it back. Those muscles never go away, it's like riding a bike. We'll solve this mystery. We'll find out who your Cinderella is.”
“You don't think a woman would find it weird, like I'm a stalker? Because I feel like a stalker.”
“Well that's because you are a stalker. All men are stalkers. We track, we hunt, we chase, we subdue. See the prey,” he picks up his whiskey and Coke, “catch the prey. Man shit, hell yeah. But you know what? Chicks dig it. Yeah they friggin dig it, dude, they love being chased. I say chase on, my friend. I'll find out what Sheila can do and let you know.”
“Thanks, man,” Martin says. The hum behind his eyes ebbs for a moment.
Shawn is getting louder. His ranting is spreading throughout the bar. He wants everyone to hear how abused he is, how stupid the people who fired him are. Bruce and Martin tune back in as the ranting grows. Everyone in the bar is tuning in, whether they want to or not.
“They think they're gonna find another man like me?” Shawn yells. He bangs an open hand into his chest two times. “Another badass tough-as-shit guy like me? Yeah good luck, there's no one in this shitty town who can hang with me. No one. No one in the state. Jim, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong, is there anyone who can out work me in this whole gay-ass state?”
Jim Kreuger, Shawn's friend, has stopped trying to shut him up. Jim is nodding and agreeing with everything he says to try to get him to calm down. The other man is Art Delper. Both men are putting hands on Shawn, trying to comfort and quiet him. They are trying to contain the fire. But when they touch him he smacks their hands away. Frank behind the bar has been through this many times. He is taking his time making drinks, and trying to be very cordial in the meantime.
Most faces in the bar have turned downward. Shawn's drunken ranting is destroying all of the conversations, and draining the fun from the dance floor. Smiles are fading, the chatter is gone, and the only two people still dancing are drunker than Shawn is.
There is one slightly happy face in the bar. No one sees it, but Martin is grinning. He is enjoying this. This is what he came for.
Shawn slams his beer bottle into the floor and a woman gasps when it shatters. The other people near the bar move away.
“I guess some people are too damn good. Some work so hard it makes other people look bad. Is it my fault that I'm the best damn employee they ever had?”
Jerry is headed back from the bathrooms. He hasn't been listening to the ranting and raving. He is walking in blind. As he passes the bar, Shawn is punctuating his last ranted sentence by waving his arms to the side. He touches Jerry's arm. He turns.
“Hey, you should probably watch yourself around me tonight, little man. You bump into me again and you might regret it.”
“Whoa, sorry Shawn, I didn't mean to,” Jerry says.
“Yeah you look sorry. You'll be sorry if you touch me again.”
Jerry waves an apologetic hand and continues back toward Martin and Bruce.
“Hey, I heard you still have your job there, Jerry. Is that true, Jerry? You still have your job?”
“So far, man, so far. But tomorrow? Who knows.”
“Yeah, who knows? Who knows? I know. You're gonna keep your job, Jerry, for sure. You know how I know?”
Shawn's friends know what's coming. They try to talk him off the ledge but Shawn isn't listening. This is what he came here for tonight, to release that anger on as many people as possible. He came to spread his pain and he finds his first easy target.
“Must be nice... being a Mexican. Sometimes it pays to be a little darker than the rest of us, hey Jerry?”
Jerry sits back down with Bruce and Martin. He doesn't care, he knows Shawn is drunk and is content to ignore him and let the flames burn themselves out. He's dealt with this most of his life, and he sees Shawn's friends are really moving in to help stop him now. They are making a much stronger effort to guide him toward the door and take him somewhere else.
“Yeah, you know it's true. No company wants to fire minorities. They're scared they'll get sued, scared you'll cry about how racist everyone is. How does that feel, knowing you will keep your job because you're brown?”
Before Jim and Art can get him to the door, Shawn shakes free of their grip. He steps forward, sensing a way into an altercation. Jerry isn't fighting back, but Shawn thinks he can change that if he keeps pushing. This is what Shawn came here for.
But this is also what Martin came here for.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says.
Shawn's voice had been such a dominant focus of everyone's attention that hearing Martin's voice, low and calm, silences the room. It breaks one tension and quickly replaces it with another. The question vibrates through the room: someone is actually going to engage with this monster? But the surprise that someone is going to stand up and the fear of what Shawn might do are replaced by a different fear. Martin's voice is lower, calmer, but somehow more intimidating than Shawn's loud drunken voice has been. There is a darkness in Martin's voice, in his posture, like the hooded hangman. He is the tiger, quietly crouched behind the squawking baboon.
“What was that?” Shawn asks.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says again, even calmer. He doesn't even look up from his beer this time.
Shawn steps forward. He waves toward the bar without looking.
“Hey Frank, turn that music off, we all need to hear something.”
“Come on, Shawn, we don't need to...”
“I said turn it off!” Shawn yells. He points and stares until Frank makes his way to the stereo deck. He turns the music down.
“Lower,” Shawn says.
Frank cuts the music completely.
“Better,” Shawn says. He takes a few more steps toward Martin's table.
“Now, what was it you were saying?”
“It's not Jerry's fault you got fired.”
“Is that right?”
“It's not his fault, it's not Frank's fault, it's not any of our faults. So maybe just, dial it down a little bit.”
Shawn relaxes. He straightens up and steps back, turning to the rest of the bar patrons with a smile. His shoulders shrug and a flash of true happiness crosses his face.
“Oh, thank you, not his fault, not your fault, no one's fault, got it. That is very helpful, Martin.”
Shawn has found what he's been looking for. He thinks he has found a vessel for his rage.
“So tell me, helpful little Martin, whose fault is it that I got fired?”
Martin turns in his chair to face Shawn. He looks up, calmly.
“Well, you could blame the market tanking. You could blame Wall Street, or the banks, or the politicians who caused it. You could blame Three Peaks Construction.”
“Oh I do,” Shawn says, “I do blame them, all of them. If they were here with us right now, I would let them know just how I feel.”
“Since they're not here, is any of this helping you feel better?”
Shawn steps closer.
“You know what? It's starting to.”
“Doesn't seem like it's helping much.”
“Well maybe since the bankers and brokers aren't here I can find someone else to feel my pain.”
“If you want to blame someone for your pain, there is really only one person to blame.”
Shawn steps closer, anticipating what is about to be said. He has been waiting all night, waiting for the starter pistol to go off and for someone to challenge him. In his mind, when challenged, fighting back would be necessary. It would be their fault for challenging. The beating he would put on them would be their fault. He didn't think that person would be Martin Bell. He is genuinely surprised at Martin, usually so soft spoken, and so much smaller, for being the guy to force the violence.
The guys around them stop and watch, also anticipating the shit that's about to go down. Marty is calm. He is numb from the alcohol, the helplessness, the shambles of his life. He isn't afraid because he doesn't care anymore. Shawn is just a shitty old TV that is ready to be shattered.
“It's your fault, Shawn. If you'd been worth keeping they would have kept you. If you were the best worker in the state, you'd still have a job. But when they looked at the bottom line and weighed their expenses against your worth, you came up...”
Martin holds up his thumb and forefinger so they measure about an inch apart. He closes one eye and aims the inch measurement at Shawn's head.
There is no stopping Shawn now. His rage overtakes him and he lunges at Martin at full speed. His hands slam into Martin's chest and he grips Martin's shirt while he pushes him backward into a wall. Martin's back slams into the wall with a nasty thud, and then he takes an overhand right to the face, just above his left eyebrow. A cut opens up and Shawn tries to hit him again but Martin goes down to one knee and Shawn's fist hits the wall above Martin's head. This doesn't slow him down and the next punch hits Martin in the back of the head.
Even though he knew what he was doing, the attack was still surprising. Martin's arms go up to his face at first, purely on instinct, but all they do is block his own vision of Shawn's punches. When the second punch lands on the back of his head, an old system reboots. Other than working as an assistant coach for a few years with the high school wrestling team, it has been a long time since Martin Bell shot a double leg take down, but here in the bar, down on one knee, the wrestler returns. He grabs Shawn's legs and tries to lift him. Shawn is six-foot three and over two hundred and thirty pounds. He now has a good layer of fat covering the systems of muscle and tendon that tie his body together, but he is still massive and strong. Even with the two solid punches to the head and the big size disadvantage, Martin's powerful lifting breaks Shawn's balance for a moment and he has to stop punching to regain it. He gets his balance back and continues dropping right hands. They are rabid, winging punches to the side of the body and down onto Martin's back.
Martin plants both feet and dives his shoulder and head into Shawn's hip. He winces slightly at the punches, but uses the opportunity to bull rush Shawn backwards into the edge of the bar, knocking over a few stools and sending the patrons scattering. Everyone moves outward to clear a central space for the men to fight. No one steps in to break it up. In this bar, everyone knows the drill.
After taking a few more blows to his ribs and back, Martin lets go of Shawn's legs. He arches his back and drives his head straight up and the back of his head crashes into Shawn's face with a crunch. Shawn grabs his nose and stumbles backward. He is stunned, but only for a moment, and once he sees his own blood on his fingertips, he charges back in, fists ready. This time, his fists will destroy Martin's face. This time, he aims to finish it. But this time, Martin is ready for the first punch. He ducks down under it, and as the punch scatters the air above Martin's head, Martin's shoulder slams into Shawn's pelvis. Shawn sprawls out over Martin's back, giving Martin the leverage he needs to get underneath Shawn and elevate him. He grabs handfuls of Shawn's pants and scoops both of Shawn's legs up. As Martin stands, Shawn folds around his back and shoulders and hangs in the air. Martin lifts him over his shoulder, and before Shawn can break free, he is hurtling through space toward a far corner of the bar. Martin runs him forward and slings him down, slamming him over a table and onto the bar's rough hardwood floors.
The crash silences the room. The patrons screaming and pleading with the men to stop cut out completely. There is no music playing, no one is talking, and a few horrified gasps rise and fall in the seconds before and after the slam. Then everyone and everything is quiet.
Except for Martin's fists.
The slam obviously knocked Shawn unconscious. He is motionless, except for the sudden jerking of his head from side to side as Martin mounts him and begins punching him in the face. Left hand, then right hand, then left, then right. After a few devastating punches, Martin clutches Shawn's throat with his left hand and punches only with his right. It is the only sound in the bar, the hard, cold smack of knuckles on flesh and bone. Martin's face is frozen in disconnected disgust. He get's at least five nasty shots in before Bruce and Jerry move in to pull him away. Martin has a cut over his eye brow from Shawn's first punch. It is bleeding down his cheek and jaw onto his neck and shirt, but he is on his feet, his chest heaving and his breaths hissing through his nose. Shawn is unconscious with his eyes open. He is missing a few teeth and has gashes over his nose and both eyebrows. His breathing is forced and raspy, and he sprays blood with each labored exhale.
The crowd is silenced by their change of mind. At first, hearing Martin speak up against a drunk and belligerent Shawn made them happy. It made them hopeful that maybe Martin would stop Shawn's tirade, one way or another. Then they felt fear for Martin as the two squared off and faced each other. Martin, being so much shorter and generally smaller, shouldn't have stood a chance. Their fears were realized when it seemed that Shawn would make quick work of Martin. Then Martin surprised them again by holding his own, and again by taking the fight back to Shawn. But no one was ready for the body slam. No one was ready for the sound of Shawn's head hitting the floor, or of his ribs breaking. No one was ready for the sounds he made. While they were processing the violence of the slam, they realized they were even less prepared for the violent snapping of Shawn's head from side to side as each new punch connected. The sprays of blood, the moans from Shawn, and maybe most disturbing, Martin's cold face and silent rage. He didn't make a sound, didn't growl or yell, just stared down at his opponent.
When Bruce and Jerry pulled Martin away, and the crowd could see, unobstructed, the extent of the beating, they couldn't help but feel sorry for Shawn. Martin had broken him. The way he was lying on the floor, one arm twitching at his side and the other waving limply in the air for help, the crowd couldn't hate him anymore. He looked as though Martin had ruined him, like he would never be the same. Any cheering, out loud or internal, stopped.
When the police arrive, Martin doesn't resist the handcuffs. He doesn't see the eyes of the people watching the cops take him away. He doesn't see the fear in their eyes, the confusion at this suddenly revealed secret violence, this hidden rage they'd never known. When the officer pushes Martin's head down into the cruiser and closes the door, Jerry and Bruce are there yelling words at him. They are asking him if they should call someone, a lawyer, or maybe Victoria?
Martin doesn't hear them. The hum in his head is gone. Now, he hears nothing.
He writes his name on a form an officer slides over to him during processing. He stands for his mug shots, follows the directions. He quietly rubs his wrists when they remove his handcuffs and close him into the holding cell with five other guys. He doesn't hear the first questions from the other inmates. When they see he isn't going to respond to their questions, they return to their seats and go back to their conversations.
Martin's eyes aren't seeing shapes. Everything is a smear mixed in with everything else around it. His life has been soaked and smudged together. Nothing is singular now, it has all fallen to his anger. In the blur, across the cell, is a bright red and orange spot. He can't make out the form, but the colors bring him back to earlier in the night. Red and orange? The thought creeps in, around the chaos and rage. Didn't I see red and orange earlier tonight?
The red and orange smudge shifts. It swirls at the corners and becomes a little clearer.
Red and orange clothes on a person. Martin is nearly there. The figure shifts again and he can see dyed blonde hair. He knows that isn't what he saw before, he saw a big red and black hat. The police must have taken his hat. When he looks down the memory twists into sudden, sharp focus. The figure is wearing a bright white shoe. One bright white shoe and one dirty white sock.
It is the kid from the parking lot, the gangster peacock. The kid is looking down at his hands as they twist and writhe in his lap. The bright white shoe is tapping manically on the cement.
It's the drug dealer's friend from Tuco's.
Martin looks down at his own hands. They are bruised and bloody. There is a gash on his knuckle, probably from Shawn's teeth. He reaches up to his swollen eyebrow. He brings the finger tips back into view and they are wet with fresh blood.
Bruised, bloody, his body coming down from the adrenaline high into the aching pains across his face and arms and legs, Martin sits back against the cement wall of the holding cell and smiles.
Martin closes his apartment door and drops his keys and wallet on the counter. He checks his phone. No new messages, so the phone joins the keys and wallet. He pulls off his work boots and drops them in the garage. The other pieces come off as he makes his way to the bathroom.
He showers quickly. He doesn't stand under the water and let it slowly burn through the dirt and sweat of the day. He grabs a wash cloth and the bar of soap and gets to work, scrubbing and rinsing before the water is fully warmed. By the time steam begins to build up in the little bathroom, Martin has already scrubbed a few beads of shampoo through his hair and washed it down the drain in swirling light brown surges. He scrubs his face and shuts the water off. He is toweled off and in his closet looking through the few remaining clean shirts he has kept since the move in less than five minutes.
He finds a shirt, a green and white button down he can wear with his one clean pair of jeans. He grabs socks, his second to last pair of clean underwear, and a pair of black boots. Between shower time and dressing time, he is at seven minutes. He walks back out into the living room. He passes the unfinished bookshelf. He used to feel an urgency whenever passing it, a sense of guilt that he needed to finish the shelf and load the books and be done with it. Tomorrow, he kept thinking. The guilt about putting the task off again and again peaked one night after coming home from a site. He walked by the book shelf, its plastic bag of screws and posts shining like garbage on the side of a road, the books stacked in uneven, toppling heaps, and the black particle board shelves accordioned together like the collapsed floors of a building. He walked by for the hundredth time and felt nothing. The guilt left him. The need for impending construction and organization died and a sheet of glad acceptance slid across the thoughts as if over the body of a dead man.
Now, walking into the kitchen, he doesn't even see it.
The boxes lined up and stacked on the wall opposite followed. A brief and sudden drive pushed him to set up the entertainment center enough to hold his giant cubic mass of a TV, along with the small DVD player which went on the shelf below. He got the organizing bug long enough to set the player on its shelf but not enough to hook it up. It sits beneath the bowing boards that support the TV, the red power light destined to stay dim.
In the kitchen, Martin surveys a different scene: random items run the length of the counter and the full width and length of his dining table and its chairs. There is a bowling ball, blue and red swirled, beside a toaster and another stack of books. There are CDs and an old laptop. At the edge of the counter top, partly hanging out over the living room, is a dark leather belt with two sheathed knives.
Martin grabs the space heater and wraps the cord around it, looping it back through itself at the top. He wants it to look small and compact and neat, like it would be easily stored and easily retrieved when needed. He wants it to look ready to use. There is a sticky note on the counter in front of it. $40. Martin needs the heater to look like it's worth $40. He really needs that amount.
Martin grabs his keys and wallet and stuffs them into his back pocket. He reaches for the door but stops. He tucks the heater under his left arm so he can pick up the knife belt with his right. The leather is soft and engraved with crosshatches and zig zags and flowery swirls every few inches. The belt was handmade by someone with real skill. Two handles extend from the sheaths. They are curved, smooth deer antler, the safer end of decorative and custom made hunting knives. The handles were once nearly white but have been yellowed by weather and use. Martin pulls the leather to his face and breathes. He takes in the old smell, takes in the memories that come with it. He pulls one of the knives from its sheath and tilts it in the low light from the apartment's front windows. He pulls the blade up his forearm, severing a small forest of hairs with ease. Seeing the blade in the light of evening reminds him of the hides the blade has been through, the organs it separated, the flesh it removed.
At the base of the blade there is an inscription:
“It's about the chase -love, dad.”
He sheaths the knife and places the belt back on the counter. He sighs at the sticky note underneath it. $100.
He really needs this money.
He locks the door after he leaves.
Martin's truck pulls into a driveway. As he gets out of the truck, the front door to the house bursts open and a smiling ten-year-old girl comes running out.
“Daddy, daddy!! Happy birthday, daddy!!”
She runs and leaps, knowing he will catch her and pull her into a long, strong hug.
“Thank you, Hilly Bee!” Martin says, growling into the hug. He holds her, shakes her back and forth, and they laugh when he puts her down and a few strands of hair get caught in the stubble on his chin.
Once free from his spiky chin hair, Hillary grins.
“I made you something, daddy. It's something special for your birthday!”
“For me? For my birthday?” Martin asks, looking around as if confused. He puts a hand on his chin and squints, “Is it my birthday?”
“Daddy, of course it is your birthday. How could you forget your own birthday?”
“That's what happens when you get old, Hill,” Juliette says, still texting as she approaches. She shuffles up to Martin without looking away from the phone. She is being forced to celebrate Martin's birthday. She is leaving the home she prefers and the parent she prefers and the phone time with friends she prefers to eat pizza with her little sister and her father and pretend to care about his surviving another year on earth.
“And a good evening to you, too, m'lady,” Martin says, bowing. He swings his arms out in a wide arc and turns his face toward the ground. Hillary loves it, giggling and bowing in return. Juliette looks up from her phone enough to close her eyes and shake her head.
“Hey, no eye rolls on my birthday,” Martin says.
“Yeah,” Hillary echoes, “no eye rolls on daddy's birthday. Dad, dad, she still has her phone!”
Juliette doesn't roll her eyes. She turns her head toward Hillary and bunches her lips together. Martin holds out his hand and exasperation rolls through Juliette's entire body all the way down to her feet, which look for a second as if they might start stomping the ground in protest. Martin stops smiling at the sight of a near tantrum from his sixteen-year-old daughter.
Juliette contains her tantrum. But she grips her phone, knowing she screwed up letting it be visible. She has broken a long-held rule from a rule book of which she is not a fan.
“She's right, you know the drill,” Martin says, extending his hand.
“Jesus Christ! How about her phone?” Juliette asks.
Despite her blasphemy, she gives up the phone without another word. She does, in fact, know the drill, and she knows arguing the point will only infuriate her and make the evening that much more difficult to bear.
Martin's brow furrows. He is confused by Juliette's question, “What about her phone?” He looks back to Hillary.
“What about her phone?” he asks.
“You mean,” Hillary begins, reaching deep into one of the pockets in her overalls. It takes her a few seconds to push past the random scraps of paper and Kleenex and the troll doll she forgot she put in there, but she finds what she is looking for and her hand appears, triumphant, holding a shiny new smart phone.
She giggles with delight.
“Where did you...” Martin starts, before he is interrupted by her singing.
“I have my own cell phone, I have my own cell phone, mwuhahahaaaa!”
“I know, right?” Juliette says, handing Martin her phone. “Finally, you and I are in agreement, what the hell?”
“Hey, easy with that,” Martin says, to another eye roll.
“My very own phone with my very own case. Look dad, look at the case. I picked it out, pink and purple with diamonds. Isn't it so awesome?”
Martin takes it from her carefully. He turns it over and over in his hands. He holds it up in the last minutes of sunlight, seeming to inspect every part of it with supreme interest. He lets his jaw drop open and his eyes go wide.
“Holy... moly... it IS so awesome! It is so awesome it is going in my pocket with your sister's phone. You don't think they'll fight in there, do you?”
Hillary doesn't even care, she is just excited to have her own phone and to have it taken away, just like her big sister. She feels very proud of her own maturity.
“Maybe on one of our nights out together we can have a super fun cell phone night. No talking aloud, no real interaction, only texts and emails... we can spend the evening looking up Justin Bieber facts and sending selfies to each other.”
“Can't wait,” Juliette says.
Victoria, late thirties, makes her way down the walkway from the house. She steps beside Martin but keeps a noticeable distance.
“Have fun, girls, be nice to the birthday boy,” she says.
“I love you, mommy,” Hillary says, rushing in for a final hug.
“I'll see you tonight,” Victoria replies, returning the hug and adding a kiss to the top of Hillary's head.
“You sure you don't want to come with us?” Juliette grins.
Victoria grins back and forces a hug from Juliette. She waves goodbye to her daughters as they climb into Martin's truck. Once the girls are inside, she takes one more step toward him.
“Hey, I hate to keep bringing it up, but the deadline for Juliette's Portland trip is coming up.”
“Do you? Do you hate bringing it up? It seems to me that you love bringing it up.”
“I do hate bringing it up.”
“How many times have you told me about the deadline in the last two weeks?”
“Don't be an ass.”
Martin smiles and turns toward Victoria. She is waving at the girls, and she tries to keep a smile on her face as Martin speaks:
“Me? How about I'm a grown man who understands how calendars and money work. How about this is me telling you, for the last time, that I'll have the money for her trip on time, even before the deadline, and the next time you ask me about it I'm going to ignore you? How's that?”
“Wow,” Victoria says, losing the smile for a split second, 'okay, okay, I'm sorry. You're right, you've proven over and over again that you are totally reliable and never need to be reminded about anything. How could I be so rude?”
“I don't know how you can be so rude.”
“Just get in the truck, Martin.”
“Oh, am I the reason we're still out here arguing? All you had to say was 'happy birthday, Martin, have fun with the girls.' But you just can't help yourself.”
“Fine, have a great night.”
“And maybe you should consider telling me when you're thinking about giving our daughter her own cell phone. Didn't you think maybe that would be something I would want to know, that maybe I would have some input on the matter?”
“Everyone her age has their own phone, Martin.”
“She's ten!” Martin says, eyes wide, leaning in.
“It's how things are now.”
“Oh yeah, ten-year-olds with their own phones and unlimited internet access?”
“Everyone has a phone, it is where the world is headed, Martin. She is safer with a phone, she'll have fun with her phone, I don't see what the problem is.”
Martin drops his arms to his sides. He hadn't realized they were rising, that he was balling up his fists, until they suddenly relax. He glances back at the girls as they watch him from the truck. Hillary waves at him to get a move on.
“Okay, well, I'm going to go now. Thanks for the continued respect, as always.”
Victoria is done. She has done this too many times before and remembers she divorced him so she wouldn't have to have these conversations. Her face softens and she starts to walk back toward the house. Just before stepping up on the front porch, she turns.
“Happy birthday, Martin.”
There is nothing more to say. She turns and disappears into the house. Martin opens his mouth to shout after her, but he, too, remembers that they aren't married anymore. He has no power here, like every other area of his life. His mouth closes into clenched fury. He is having trouble holding all of the fury in. The seals are cracking. He isn't sure how much longer he wants to hold it all in.
His head is down as he walks to the truck. He straightens up before he gets to his door, but not soon enough. Juliette locks eyes with him as he opens the door. She watched the scene unfold and she lets him know. It is a scene she witnessed many times as their daughter. It goes into the large file of “fights between mom and dad.”
As Martin starts the truck and clicks in his seat belt, she lets him know she saw everything.
“That looked like fun,” she says.
“Happy birthday to me,” Martin replies, throwing the truck into gear. “Now who's ready for some pizza?”
The truck backs out of the driveway to the sound of Hillary screaming about her love and readiness for pizza. The tires screech as Martin punches the gas peddle, and they rumble down the street. Martin looks at the clock. 5:22. Perfect timing. He looks to the passenger side floor board. The little space heater is sitting there, ready to make him some money. With only those two dollars sitting in his wallet, he knows he needs to get the full amount in cash right now.
“Do you girls mind if we make a quick stop on the way to pizza?” Martin yells into the windshield.
“Do we have a choice?” Juliette mumbles.
“Not if you want to eat,” Martin says, smiling at Juliette in the rear view mirror.
Martin looks down at his phone again. He sees that, according to the directions, the next right turn should be Frankfurt and he memorizes the house number.
“Daddy, you're not supposed to use your phone while you drive,” Hillary says.
“I thought we weren't supposed to use phones at all on our magical wonderful super special days out with dad,” Juliette says.
The truck pulls up to a large, newer house next to other large, newer houses. There aren't many cars parked on the street. Martin imagines the two and three-car garages are probably full of BMWs and the latest Lexus and Cadillac SUVs. The ones that are parked on the street were made by Audi and BMW.
Martin parks behind a shining black Audi.
“Stay in the truck, girls, I'll be right back.”
“Whose house is this, dad?” Hillary asks, looking at the wide ground-level front window and the towering roof line more than two stories up.
“Hopefully a woman who wants to buy a small space heater,” Martin says.
Martin approaches the door with the heater tucked under his arm like a football. The doorbell is a delicate, melodious chime that sings through the whole house. A small dog barks, and after a few moments a figure appears in the treated glass. The figure scoops up the dog and opens the door.
“Hi, I'm Martin, did you call about a space heater on craigslist?”
When the first two words leave the woman's mouth, Martin knows it is the same woman from the phone earlier. She is even still battling the little dog who challenged their phone conversation. Martin looks down at the dog's growling, floppy jowls and sees a personalized dog collar. “Brutus.”
“Yes, yes, yes, hi, thank you for coming by, thank you. Please excuse Brutus, he is a very tough and vicious killer.”
She continues talking to the dog as Martin speaks. It is obvious who is more important here.
“Yes he is. Well here is the heater if you want to take a look at it. You can plug it in and make sure it works, if you like.”
“Yes, yes, yes, that looks great. Let me just take Brutus back to his room. I'll be right back.”
Martin is not excited about waiting for this woman to tend to her stupid dog. She is wasting his time. He is wondering why she, knowing he was coming over to show her the heater, didn't plan ahead to put the dog away in the first place. He looks back to the truck and waves to the girls. Hillary waves back excitedly. Juliette does not. Martin gives a thumbs up and turns back to the door. He can hear the woman talking to the dog. It is crazy dog-person talk, lots of questions about how cute the dog is, how smart and silly the dog is, infuriating things to someone who doesn't have a dog and whose precious family time is being wasted.
“Yes, yes, yes, so sorry about that. Brutus can be very demanding. Now, looking at the heater it is smaller than I thought it would be, and the picture made it look, I don't know... darker? I'm not sure it is the right tone for my room.”
The woman takes the heater and turns it over and over in her hands.
“Well it could definitely be painted, and it is small but it pumps out a lot of heat, a surprising amount of heat.”
She looks briefly at Martin, at his pants and then his shirt.
“Maybe for you, but I have some very tall ceilings in my guesthouse. It would have its work cut out for it.”
The tall ceilings of your guesthouse? Martin thinks to himself. He also thinks about his hands around the woman's throat. Instead, he considers her house, and her view of him. She sees some lower class male, some guy, some construction worker or some other form of dirty day laborer and enjoys exerting power. Martin imagines her buying items from Best Buy just so she can enjoy the pleasure of asking for a manager and complaining the manager into humble submission. Martin sees her husband off running some successful business while she terrorizes the daytime staffs of every retail store in a ten mile radius.
He changes his tactics.
“Well, yeah, I understand. If it's not for you then it's not for you, that's okay.”
He reaches out for it, silently demanding that she give it back.
“Well let me look at it for a second,” she says. She turns so the light from the front door's stained glass peering windows dances across the wrapped cord and the dark blue metal.
“Hey, if it's not what you want it's not what you want,” Martin says.
The woman pulls the heater against her chest.
“It's not the ideal color or size, but you came all this way. I can give you $30 for it.”
Martin tries to hold strong.
“Well, I have someone else interested in it, you were just first in line. She offered me $40 so I kind of need $40.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I see. Well that's too bad, it is a cute little heater.”
Her shifts between unpleasable aristocrat and considerate customer makes Martin want to grab the heater and throw it through her seventy-inch flatscreen TV. She has more than enough money to pay the asking price for the heater. Forty dollars is nothing to her, but she enjoys watching Martin bargain. She is watching him battle his own thoughts, one foot in the door and one foot out and ready to run. Martin knows she doesn't really need the heater, not this particular heater, not from him, but she does like playing with people. He can see her eyes, see that the control is fun for her. These are probably her hobbies: her stupid dog, Brutus, and manipulating people in whatever ways she can. She enjoys the power shift, especially against a big, strong man. She doesn't have to budge on price, so either she gets it for the price she wants, or the man in front of her begs and pleads for more money that she isn't going to give and then leaves, a failure. Whatever happens, she wins.
She is still holding the heater when their eyes meet. She smiles. Martin flinches.
“You know what? You seem like a nice lady, and selling it to you gets the heater off my hands. How about we meet in the middle, $35?”
She shakes her head and smiles.
“You know, holding it and seeing it up close, I really think $30 is my final price.”
Martin can feel the Italian marble stone beneath his feet. He can smell the incense burning from her small yoga studio where she probably hosts friends and a private yoga instructor. He can hear Brutus growling in a back room, a solid gold heart-shaped name plate tinkling on the chain attaching it to his premium leather collar. She is clutching the heater with her bony, ringed fingers, the diamonds sparkling in the light, taunting him. At any other time on any other night, he tells himself he would tell this woman to go fuck herself.
But the girls are in the truck just outside.
“Alright,” he says, clapping his hands together once and loud, “$30 it is.”
The woman smiles.
“Oh really? Wonderful, thank you so much. Brutus will be thrilled.”
Martin watches her switch the heater to her left arm so she can dig into a pocket with her right. She pulls out a ten dollar bill and a twenty. It is obvious those two bills were the only bills in her pocket. She knew that would be the price.
“Have a lovely day,” she says.
Before Martin can answer her, the door is closing. Once closed, he can hear her conversation with Brutus strike up again. He sighs, placing the money in his wallet. Thirty-two dollars should get him through dinner and dessert.
When he gets back in the truck, Juliette is ready. She watched the interaction play out and she has a pretty good idea of how it went down.
“Well did she buy it, daddy?” Hillary asks.
“She sure did,” Martin says.
“Did you get your asking price?” Juliette asks. She knows the answer.
“I got enough for pizza!” Martin announces to Hillary's delight.
“Figures,” Juliette says. Hillary cheers again for the idea of pizza. She chants it in a long crescendo, pizza, pizza, and Juliette settles back into her seat. She folds her arms and frowns out the window. She is afraid her dad doesn't have enough self awareness or respect to be hurt by her statements. She wants him to feel the sting of his failures. She feels he deserves it, and she wants to make him feel the way splitting up their family made her feel.
Martin does a decent job hiding the pain her words cause him, but he is deeply affected by her barbs. Her barbs are different from the barbs of an ex-wife. Hers are much more painful, as he wants her respect and admiration far more than he wants Victoria's.
Martin and the girls sit at a table in a nearly empty pizza place. It is a Wednesday evening, apparently not the wildest time for Pepe's Pizza Parlor. The red tiled floor screams for action, for children to run excitedly across it from the pizza counter to the video games to the indoor play place. But without throngs of screaming children, the bright tiles seem absurd, the flashing lights and blinking buzzers from the arcade seem out of place, offensive. The parlor is telling him to have fun, screaming at him to have a good time, without providing any real entertainment.
But Hillary is smiling and so Martin smiles.
Martin sits at the table Hillary picks out and watches her run to get the napkins and drinks. It is his birthday, he isn't supposed to do any of the work. That's what Hillary told him in the parking lot. There is young couple in one corner, and one other family with small children a few tables away. The parents reflect a state of being Martin can understand. They don't look at each other. They don't speak except to tell one of their children to stop doing whatever dangerous or destructive thing they are doing. Martin is having a hard time ignoring the oldest boy, maybe six years old, who is rhythmically banging his empty plastic cup on the table. He has managed to spill the last of the bright orange substance he is supposed to be drinking all over his lap and seat. Now, each time he bangs the cup into the table, the last tiny bubbles of sugary soda spray out onto the table and the boy's arm and hand, while his mother tries to manage the two other younger siblings.
Hillary's voice slowly re-enters Martin's consciousness.
“And if I have the best animal mask I win a lunch with my teacher in the teacher's lounge!”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“I think I should make a giraffe mask because I don't think that anyone else would think to make a giraffe mask and giraffes are awesome and weird and cool.”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“But I don't think I can make a giraffe mask by myself. Do you think you could help me, daddy?”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“Daddy? Dad, are you listening?”
“Martin!!” Juliette snaps.
The mother finally clicks back into reality and grabs the cup from her son. She whispers for him to stop it, something about not getting ice cream if he doesn't stop. She refills his cup with soda.
“What's that, sweetie? Giraffes?” Martin says.
“Wow, dad, you really need to work on your listening skills.”
She passes him his drink. The Pepsi is still crackling and the carbonation sends a spray of Pepsi particles down onto the back of his hand. He takes three gulps through the straw.
“Sorry, Hill, I was just thinking about... all that delicious ice cream we're going to be eating after this.”
“Why aren't you eating any pizza?” she asks.
“You know, I'm just... I'm just not that hungry.”
Martins stomach twists and gurgles beneath the table. He hasn't eaten anything since his one burrito and bag of carrots at eleven thirty. He is starting to feel the headache slither behind his eyes and sharpen its claws.
“Saving room for ice cream?”
“That's it, Hilly, I'm saving room for ice cream.”
Hillary smiles. She decides to ask him about the giraffe mask later and instead starts fishing in one of her other overall pockets. She finds what she is looking for.
“I have a surprise for you, daddy. It's a super secret and special birthday surprise, just for you. You have to close your eyes.”
“A birthday surprise, huh?”
Martin closes his eyes.
“Now hold out your hand,” she says, her hands behind her back, her feet rocking back and forth from heels to toes. Martin holds out his hand and shows that he is trying to peak and see what his surprise will be.
“No peaking!” Hillary scolds.
He shuts them again and fights back a smile. Hillary pulls out a bracelet made of lanyards and beads. The beads are spaced evenly across the back of the bracelet, D – A – D – D – Y, with a heart bead at both ends end. She places the bracelet gently into his hand.
“Surprise! Happy birthday!”
Martin opens his eyes. The lanyard bracelet sparkles up at him. It's a silly thing, all florescent lanyard and shiny beads with big bubble letters and sparkles on the hearts. It's a monstrous and loud and ridiculous and bright and happy and dancing with the boisterous love he has only ever seen from little Hillary. He can see her smile in the beads, hear her laughter in the click of the plastic pieces.
“Wow, that's amazing,” his whispers. Juliette looks up from her pizza when she hears the subtle wavering in his voice. “Where did you buy this?”
“I made it,” Hillary says. She opens her arms wide, an unofficial abracadabra.
“What? You made this yourself? No way, I can't even believe that.”
Martin is playing it up, but he can't actually believe that she made it. Not like this, not this fitting, not this perfectly... her.
“I made it all by myself at school. The lanyards are red and black, your favorite colors, and I added pink because that's my favorite color, and it says 'daddy' because, duh, you're my daddy.”
Juliette is seeing the bracelet for the first time, too. She agrees with Martin, it looks like someone made it after getting perfect instructions from Martin's psyche. She heard his voice waver before, and now, after Hillary's all-too-adorable explanation, Juliette looks to Martin's eyes to see his reaction.
She wants to see tears.
“It's,” he starts. He has to take another breath and slow his mind down. “It's really, really beautiful, Hilly Bean.”
Juliette grabs her slice of pizza and takes a bite to hide her smile.
Hillary jumps forward and takes the bracelet. She wraps it around Martin's right wrist. Martin can't stop the surge in his heart now. He is going to lose his job. He is going to lose the only source of income he has known since he was fifteen. He had to sell a space heater and made barely enough money to buy his little girls pizza and ice cream. One of those little girls, only ten years old, took time at school to put real thought and care into a gift for him on his birthday. She picked out the parts. She put them together herself, to be kind, to make him happy.
For a moment, Martin feels like he will be able to hold back the tears. He will have to sneak a wipe or two on his sleeve, or slip away to the bathroom for a few minutes. But when Hillary wraps the lanyards around his massive wrists and the bracelet isn't big enough to tie off, the first tear streaks down his cheek and falls on the tacky checkered table.
“I love it, Hill,” he says.
“Oh no, it doesn't reach, daddy. It doesn't fit.”
“It's not perfect. It's too small. How are you going to wear it if it's too small?”
Martin pulls her head into his chest and kisses it. Two more tears slide down his cheeks and disappear into the sandy blonde hair.
“It is perfect, Hillary. It is beautiful and perfect just like you.”
Juliette notices his tears.
“Don't worry, I didn't get you anything. No tears necessary.”
Martin doesn't let the barb sting.
“Well that's okay, I guess I will just have to love Hillary more from now on.” He sniffs hard and wipes his sleeve across his eyes one by one. He pulls Hillary in for one more hug and kiss. “Hey Hill, do you want to be my favorite daughter?”
“Daddy! That is terrible.”
“Fine by me,” Juliette says.
“Are you sure, Jules? I don't think fathers give their second favorite daughters hundreds of dollars for trips to the beach and theaters and Portland medical schools.”
Juliette takes the pizza away from her mouth. She opens it to speak but nothing comes out. That's it, Martin thinks. He is happy for a little leverage on the moody teenager. Juliette's face softens for the first time all night. He actually caught her off guard.
“What? I thought mom was paying for that.”
“Nope, yours truly. First off, you're welcome. Second, you might want to be a little nicer to me. At least for a little while. When is the trip, two weeks?”
Juliette nods, then shakes her head.
“It is like four hundred bucks, are you sure you can...” her voice trails off.
“I do have a job, you know,” Martin says, “where I, like... make money and stuff. It's not a lot of money, but...”
“Not as much as mommy!” Hillary says.
“Right you are, Hillary, thank you, not as much as mommy.”
“And not as much as Saxon!” she says, laughing.
“Hillary!” Juliette shouts. Her rebuke is sudden and loud and harsh. The couple in the corner look up from their pizza. The little boy stops banging his once again empty cup and his mother looks over, stunned. Martin sees what has happened. Hillary has spilled some secret that has been discussed, a secret he is not welcome into. By the way Juliette is looking at Hillary, and the way Hillary's head is hanging down over her discarded pizza crusts, the secret was important.
“Well... I don't know who that is, but I think it's a safe bet that you're probably right, I probably don't make as much money as... who was it, Saxon? Saxon? But don't worry, I make enough. Yes, I am going to pay for it, and I should have it for you on Saturday.”
Juliette finally pulls her flogging eyes from Hillary's shamed face. Her look softens again, knowing her broke father is paying for her trip to Portland and he now knows there is some other man, Saxon, in his daughters' lives who makes a lot of money.
“Four hundred dollars is a lot of tiny heaters,” she says.
“It is, I know. It's been hard, having to dig into my tiny heater reserves. I've had to part with some really nice heaters, thanks to you, heaters I had for a very long time. Heaters that I respected. Heaters that I loved.”
Hillary giggles. Juliette cracks a smirk. She knows her dad doesn't have a lot of money, and for a moment she is truly grateful and thanks him.
“But I know the trip is important to you, and I have no idea why you would want to watch an actual surgery, watch someone get cut open, tinkered with, and then sewn back up...”
“They cut people open and sew them back up?” Hillary gasps.
“Sorry Hillary, but it's okay, they do it to help people. Sometimes things break and a doctor goes in to fix it.”
“It is kind of gross,” he says, nodding to Hillary. He looks at Juliette. “You want to cut people open?”
“It's actually really great, Hillary. Your sister wants to help people and that's... really cool.”
“Daddy, can we stop talking about this?”
“I guess. What do you want to talk about? How cool Saxon is?”
“I can't believe she said that. I'm sorry, dad.”
Martin doesn't miss the end of the sentence: dad.
“Hey, it's fine, who your mom hangs out with is up to her. It's good to know that you think he is cool. I'm glad, I'm happy for her.”
“He is really nice, and he is smart.”
“And he is really funny. He is even funnier than you, dad.”
“Easy, okay, it's my birthday. Is your other present just to make me feel bad all night?”
Hillary giggles again.
“I'm about to start talking about cutting people open again.”
“Noooo!” Hillary whines.
“Saxon, huh? What kind of stupid name is...”
Juliette sighs. She is too tired of this. He relents.
“Well, if you like him and your mom likes him then he must be a pretty cool guy.”
Hillary shoves the last of her pizza into her mouth and mumbles through the cheese and crust.
“Maybe you can meet him sometime.”
Martin grabs Juliette's last piece of pizza from her hand and chomps it greedily down.
Hillary, Juliette, and Martin are rumbling along in his truck. They each have their own ice cream cone. Martin turns on the radio. It is country music.
“How is your ice cream, daddy?” Hillary chirps, her hands covered in the melting dribbles of vanilla ice cream.
“Oh, so good, the best I've ever eaten as a 39-year-old.”
“This is the first ice cream you've had as a 39-year-old.”
“Ugh, no country music, please,” Juliette interjects. “Change the channel before I kill myself.”
Martin starts switching stations. On one channel, a news update is being played. The news anchor tells a story about local authorities pulling over two men in a vehicle and finding over a half a million dollars in drugs, guns, and cash in the trunk.
“You just turned thirty-nine, dad, so this is...”
Martin shushes her and turns up the volume. The men were pulled over for the cracks in their windshield. Once stopped, the officers found bullet holes in the glass and in the passenger door. The anchor finishes the story by relaying the authorities' guess about the men's activity: drug runners from California.
When the story is over, AC/DC begins to play. Martin turns the volume back down.
“What happened, dad?” Hillary asks. “What was the story about?”
Half a million dollars? Martin wonders.
“Nothing,” he says, “nothing important. Just some bad people getting caught doing bad things.”
Hillary keeps her questions to herself for the rest of the drive home. As Martin pulls the truck into Victoria's driveway, the front porch lights up and the front door opens. Martin kills the headlights and Victoria waves from the front door.
“Bye, daddy! Happy birthday!” Hillary says. She waits for him to slide out of the driver's seat so she can grab him around the waist and growl hug him again. The two twist back and forth for a few seconds as Victoria makes her way off of the front porch onto the driveway.
“Happy birthday, dad,” Juliette says. She doesn't ask for a hug, but her tone has changed. For Martin, it is better than a hug. “Come on, Hill, let's go inside.”
“Thank you, girls, I'll see you on Saturday.”
The girls make their way toward the front door, but Hillary pulls herself from Juliette's grasp and turns, running back to Martin. She throws herself face first into his stomach and hugs him tight. Martin picks her up and returns the squeeze.
“Don't be sad, daddy,” Hillary whispers. “You can't be sad on your birthday.”
“Is that the birthday rule?” Martin asks.
Hillary nods. She pulls away but then goes in for another hug, one more. Martin's eyes pick up the shine they had in the pizza parlor and he kisses her head and puts her down hoping she won't notice. She returns to her sister and they greet Victoria at the door. The girls disappear into the house and Victoria looks, for a moment, as if she will wave to Martin. The moment passes and she, too, disappears into the house.
As Martin gets back into the truck and backs out into the street, he sees the bracelet Hillary made him sitting in one of the cup holders. A cup holder is no place for this precious work of art and love. He hangs it from the rear view mirror, the letters facing out. He stares at it, stares at every detail of every bead and twist of lanyard and sparkle on the hearts. He doesn't have to fight the tears now, but he does. His lips quiver. He holds it all in. He closes his eyes against the rising sound in his throat and his fists turn to stone on the steering wheel. He loses the fight for a moment and a sob blasts suddenly out of his mouth. He bites down. He tries to take a deep breath in through his nose and hold it but his body is locked. He knows when he breathes out he will probably break down. He will cry and sob and rip the truck apart in his rage. As his lungs burn and his mind begins to scream for air, he prepares.
A car honk breaks his trance and brings him back. A pair of headlights shine at him from his rear view mirror. He stopped in the middle of the street, and now, seeing someone behind him, he speeds off toward home.
Martin Bell is sitting in a faded blue recliner, a hardcover book about the arctic laid out on his lap to support the slow scribblings of his pen on a folded newspaper. He is staring, number twelve across, five letters, “to act under a heavy burden.” He presses his pen into the first square. The answer should be “labor,” but that would mean eight down couldn't be “dilemma.” He looks again to the index. Eight down, “Crisis.” Using Dilemma fits with twenty-five across, but Martin is leery about the chances that there is a word for “acting under a heavy burden” that ends with an “I.” Twenty-one across doesn't help because he doesn't know the “one-eyed time-traveling Marvel mutant.” He picks the pen back up and considers what eight down might be if twelve across is “labor.” He looks back to one down and questions his answer there, too. “Predict,” four letters, could be a lot of things.
The pen digs into the paper. He presses harder here than he has in the other boxes and the letters stand out in the puzzle. He looks to eight down and considers what sort of word conveys a crisis and has “R” for a second letter. It could be “problem,” he decides. It has seven letters and there are seven spaces, but “problem” would change twenty-five across.
Martin's fingers tighten around the pen. While considering the three intersecting words, his eyes can't ignore how much darker “labor” is than the rest of the words in the puzzle. It's bothering him too much to focus on the right combination of possible words and their intersecting letter corroborations. He has, so far, written twelve answers into the crossword puzzle's squares, and he begins to darken these other guesses.
The recliner is the only piece of furniture in the apartment's living room. To Martin's left, a small black bookshelf sits, half-done, beside the piles of books that might one day complete it. Against the wall to his right, five boxes form a cardboard table where Martin has thrown clothes, shoes, and a lamp that is missing its bulb.
Directly in front of the recliner, pushed nearly and unevenly to the wall, is a small entertainment center with an old forty-two-inch TV. It is not a lightweight flat screen. The particle board platform of the entertainment center is bowing under the weight of the three and a half feet wide and nearly three and a half feet deep behemoth. It even has a long, external antennae. As Martin darkens the last letter in the puzzle and squints to check the consistency again, a commercial for a cell phone provider pulls him from his frustration. The commercial asks him about his cell service, about dropped calls and limited reception and expensive data plans. It asks him about his family members using all of his data and going over the family limit. Then it asks him if he wishes for a better way.
The only other unpacked box in the room is beside the recliner, sitting on the floor within Martin's reach. The box contains items for the kitchen and a dozen DVDs, but for now he is finding more use for the box as a side table. On top of the box is another small reading lamp next to a crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper, the TV remote, and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. When Martin reaches for the remote, he bumps the bottle, nearly knocking it to the carpet below. He doesn't react, just picks up the remote and tries to change the channel as the bottle wobbles back and forth and then rights itself.
The TV doesn't change. Martin presses the button again, channel up, and a third time. The screen clicks to a new channel, which is in the middle of its own commercial. It is a woman talking about car insurance. Martin clicks the remote again. The woman remains, her smile too white, her eyes too blue, her world too clean and shining and bright. He pushes the button, harder. She remains. She laughs. Martin looks down to the remote to make sure he is pressing the right button. He is, and he tries again. She is still laughing, clasping her hands and swaying back and forth as if nothing in the world could ever be difficult for her or anyone, anywhere. Martin's thumb pops under the pressure of jamming the button down again and again.
He lays the remote down on the recliner's arm and trades it for the bottle of whiskey. He takes two gulps and shuts his eyes against the TV's insistence. He breathes out, coughing once, and puts the bottle back on its box. He cradles the remote in the left hand so he can press harder with his right. The woman remains. He reaches out, getting the remote closer to the screen. He bangs the remote against his palm. Maybe the battery is loose, he thinks. Something cracks in the remote's base and he presses the button again. The woman remains, confident, all-knowing, and she smiles her victorious smile as the company's phone number and website appear on the screen.
Labor, its letters black, not written so much as carved into the rough, cloudy gray surface of the newspaper, pulse in Martin's eyes and pound in his head. Labor, labor, he feels the heavy burden and his arm swings in a long, violent backhand arc across his legs. The crossword puzzle and the book about the animals of the arctic fly from his lap. They flap through the living room like startled quail and crash against the bookshelf wall. Before they have settled on the piles of other books and papers, the remote hits the hard glass of the TV, its cheap plastic bindings exploding its rubber buttons and its batteries and any weak or unsecured electronic parts around the room. One piece makes its way back to Martin, bouncing off of his forearm and settling in his lap.
The piece falls to the floor as Martin stands. He has the bottle of whiskey by the neck and roars at the TV. He grips the back of the recliner and heaves it onto its side. He kicks the box and the lamp hits the floor with a pop. The bulb bursts and its white shards tinkle against each other and settle quietly into the carpet, the smaller pieces embedding themselves deep enough in the fibers that the vacuum will have trouble finding them.
The box flips over onto its top, spitting out a single DVD on its way over. With the chair down and the box upended, Martin turns to the TV. He pauses, like a pitcher reading a batter's stance, but he has no need to pause. He knows the pitch he is going to throw. He winds up, a small step driving him forward, and he looses the bottle. He is screaming as it leaves his fingers and he is screaming as the bottle flips end over end into the wall behind the TV. The bottle tears through the paint and sheet rock bottom first and lodges there, nearly upside down, a foot above the TV. Martin coughs through a sore throat. His throat wasn't prepared for his primal scream and he heaves and hacks and lets the rage radiate outward and come back to him.
His rage screams out and echoes back. His rage tears at his throat and pounds blood through his neck and shoulders. He heaved the bottle at the TV wanting, needing the glass to explode and scatter shards and noise all over the room. His rage needs to throw things and kick things and break things, to break all of the boxes and their spotted glasses and chipped dinner plates and cracking, fading, needlessly painful picture frames. He wants the whiskey to spray out over the TV and ignite and burn through the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom and take all of the clogging, choking, enslaving boxes and bags and clothes and tools and pictures and papers and clear them out. His rage wants to destroy his little things and his little apartment and his little life. It wants to be clear, to walk freely through a single day and not have to step over things and around things and through things, to not have to file anything or clean anything, to not have to use hangers or drawers or walk-in closets or cell phones or check books.
He doesn't get his explosion or violent chaos. He doesn't get the life-clearing brush fire, not a single flame. Looking around now, he gets, instead, a tipped over reclining chair, a broken light bulb, maybe even the lamp itself. He gets a broken remote control. He gets a whiskey-bottle-sized hole in the wall behind the TV. The rage doesn't gets its destructive outpouring. Instead, it goes inward. He can feel it start, the pulse in his neck and the noise thumping up under his skull. It is like claws on this inside, scraping the bone, clawing for a way out. The scraping creates a low hum. It vibrates beind his eyes, across to his temples, to the top of his head and the back of his skull and down into the base of the skull. The claws dig and scrape, looking for a way out, until Martin drops to one knee. He tips forward, nearly collapsing face first onto the floor. He catches himself on the tipped recliner.
The storm in his head softens. He feels it collect, pooling at the base of his skull, before it begins to drain, down into his chest and out to his fingertips, into his stomach and pelvis, into his balls and behind his hamstrings into the backs of his knees, down into his shins, to his ankles, into his feet. The rage is trickling down, but everywhere it touches stays charged. It is calmly spreading, shifting from a loud, explosive, forceful rage he was controlling to something else. He can feel the power, the choice, draining from him. There is usually strength in his rage. There is a calm he feels, something about being able to scream and lash out, that always helped him feel in control. The choice to destroy the whiskey bottle and the TV was control. Burning the apartment to the ground would be a sort of control. The rage is a beast with a saddle and reigns and when Martin screams its name and lives out its presence, he feels a control he doesn't feel anywhere else.
He has lost it. The rage has dissipated, returning to the corners of his body, to the ends of his limbs and the center of his chest. He laughs, quickly in between harsh breaths. He stands for a moment, then lets his hands go to his knees and he breathes there, looking up to laugh, again. He stands to full height and looks around the room, looks behind him, looks through the blinds into the outside world, and laughs. He knows he has lost control of the beast. He won't be able to ride it on the destructive rampage he hoped.
The bottle, lodged in the wall, spout down, is pouring whiskey out on the TV below. Martin laughs at how a grown man who played baseball his whole life could fly into a rage and throw a whiskey bottle at a large TV set from less than ten feet away and miss. As the rage dampens and the shuddering in Martin's fists and throat slow, the trickle of whiskey begins running into one of the cooling vents on top of the TV. Martin stops laughing when he hears the first hissing and popping of the liquid hitting heated circuits and exposed wiring. A slim trail of smoke curves its way through one of the vents, then the other, and puffs out from one of the speakers on the front before the commercial disappears and the screen crackles to black.
No explosion, no crash, no fire. The TV dies quietly with some popping circuits and a cut to sudden, black silence. Martin's stained t-shirt is heaving, his breathing accelerating. He wanted to end the TV himself, loudly, violently. He stares back at his reflection in the glass, the white blob of his shirt, the blue blob of his jeans, the two pale arms and the blank face. He watches the distorted figure grow on the glass, watches it reach out, mouth open, and follows the dark rage back from its hiding places to the center of his throat as he fills the apartment with his fury.
A jack hammer tears into the ground. Martin stares through his protective goggles at the crumbling rock and dirt below. When bits of chipped rock and dirt fly up to his face and ping off of his mask and helmet, he doesn't flinch. He doesn't blink. He clenches his teeth and grips the jack hammer's handles and leans more heavily into the machine.
Behind him, across a fresh black asphalt parking lot and a newly cured cement sidewalk and flower bed, beige siding, dull metal, and glass rise from the ground five stories into the northern Oregon haze. The large new building going up behind him says “Carson Medical,” and a nearby trailer reads “Three Peaks Construction.” Men carry long rolls of carpet and spools of wiring from their trucks to the glass entrance. The automatic doors are locked open, and the worker's dusty steps are tracked by protective paper they've taped down from the sidewalk in through the entryway.
Martin is lost in his jack hammering. The drainage ditch he is altering stretches to the west, and has put him by himself at the far end of the lot. He doesn't notice when another worker walks up behind him and begins yelling questions. The worker's badge says “Bruce,” and he cups his hands into a funnel shape and his yelling grows. After a third try, he is done yelling. He looks around on the ground and finds a small rock. The throw is perfect, hitting Martin in the back of his over-sized orange helmet. Martin turns and the man continues yelling.
“Hey, lunch, are you ready for lunch?” Bruce yells. Martin removes his ear protection and points to his ears. He shakes his head, waving for Bruce to say whatever it was again. He cups his hand around his ear. Bruce holds up an imaginary sandwich and bites into it.
“Eat, do you want to eat?” he yells.
Martin cuts the jack hammer out completely. He surveys his progress and is pleased enough. He shrugs and nods to Bruce and lays the jack hammer down.
When Martin finally sits at the outdoor lunch table, the sounds of construction are still in the background. Distant and muted, but still there. This is an outdoor eating area the crew has built for the medical building. Martin, Bruce, and another man, Jerry, all sit eating their lunches. Their lunch courtyard stretches out from the southwest corner of Carson Medical. The landscaping crew planted trees and a hedge that wraps around three quarters of the space, nearly enclosing it completely. The bushes and trees help dull the sounds of power saws and nail guns and generators. The area has picnic tables with umbrella holsters at each table. In a few weeks, doctors and nurses will be breathing fresh air under the shade of the umbrellas and feeling the cool cement tables on their forearms while they gobble their lunches down in weary shifts.
Jerry, Bruce, and Martin smile as they sit at tables they built and enjoy their own handiwork. They joke about each others choice of lunch. Jerry gets roasted for his giant meatball sub. Bruce's masculinity is questioned because of the crust-free sandwiches his wife makes him. As the conversation moves to the upcoming MMA fights, Martin sits quietly, slowly chewing his burrito, absent. When he notices the other two looking at him to either agree or disagree with the statement that was just made, he does his best to fake a laugh and nod his appreciation. His clueless response doesn't cut it.
“Come on, Marty, you know Serra got lucky in their first fight and St. Pierre is going to destroy him this time.”
Jerry takes a bite from a massive meatball sub and begins his fight commentary while the marinara sauce is still wet on his bearded chin.
“He's a fruity french Canadian, the worst kind of Canadian, and he's been faking his way to the top because women like him.”
“Women like him, that's why he has knocked out or submitted so many opponents?” Bruce asks. Jerry wipes his chin and mouth with the back of his hand.
“He is the UFC's secret weapon for gaining female fan support. He's not a real fighter.”
“And what, his good looks out-wrestled and then knocked out Matt Hughes, one of the greatest UFC champions of all time? Hughes lost because, what, St Pierre was too pretty?”
“Hughes was a worn-down champion past his prime,” Jerry says.
“Worn down? He is like thirty years old.”
“Nah, he's gotta be almost forty,” Jerry says.
“He's early thirties, thirty-one or thirty-two, maybe.
“That is old in wrestling years.”
Bruce puts his sandwich down and takes two gulps from his thermos. The argument requires him to stop eating and focus his attention. He can't believe what he is hearing. He shakes his head.
“Oh now we're going by wrestling years?” he asks. “First of all, please tell that to Matt Hughes yourself, in person. Please go to his next fight and yell that from the front row, 'Hey Matt, you're too old, you're like eighty in wrestling years, give it up!' Second, Matt Hughes is Matt Hughes. He will never be that worn down.”
“GSP was too big, too fast, Hughes isn't big enough for welterweight anymore. Some of these new guys are cutting almost thirty pounds, coming down from one-ninety-five, two-hundred pounds to fight at one-seventy. GSP is probably coming down from at least one-ninety.”
“Weight isn't everything in a fight,” Bruce says.
“These new guys are too big,” Jerry counters.
“You're insane,” Bruce says, waving at his helpless friend's nonsense. He turns to Martin, who is quietly eating raw, full-sized carrots, the same type of carrots he always brings with him in his work lunch. “Marty, please, talk to him. Talk some sense to this man.”
Martin takes out another carrot and twirls it through his fingers before biting it nearly in half.
“You guys hear about Donovan's crew?” he asks them, without looking up.
Jerry stands up and looks out at the site trailer. Bruce shakes his head as his smile fades. He had picked his sandwich up again and was about to take a bite. He puts his sandwich back down and turns sideways to brush the crumbs from his hands off onto the cement. Bruce looks at Jerry. It is like looking into a mirror, their pained expressions sharing the same question.
“While we're eating?” Jerry asks, also putting his meatball sub back down on its wax paper, “Come on, man.”
Jerry's wipes his mouth and beard with a napkin and wraps the other half of the sandwich back up in the paper it came in. He crushes the edges to keep the wrap tight and stuffs it into his small cooler. Bruce shakes the ice in his thermos and then stares at it before talking.
“We're talking about fights, man, you can't just drop a massive turd right in the middle of the lunch table.”
“That is pretty messed up, man,” Bruce says.
“Rumor is the suits are headed our way sometime this week,” Martin says, ignoring the men's requests. “You can ignore that, if you want.”
Bruce finishes his sandwich and pulls four hard gulps from his thermos. He tightens the nozzle down and crumples up his trash.
“Well, if they're coming to our site, they're coming today. If they don't come today then we may have dodged the chopping block. We may be off the hook.”
“I don't know, man,” Jerry says, “I've been up nights thinking about this. What else do we have to do around here? The project is almost wrapped, they finished the sealants and coatings and I think the last of the carpeting goes in tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next week at the latest. Once you finish those trenches and we fit those drainage pipes, you're all but finished. What else would they have for us here? With the market taking this massive shit...”
Bruce waves his hands and then slams them into his chest.
“Hey, hey, stop. Just stop. There is always room for the best. That is true in anything, even in the worst markets. You think people are just going to stop building shit?”
“They will if there's nothing to build, if there's no money,” Jerry says.
“There is always work to do. Always. And for that work, who is the best?”
Jerry and Marty don't answer. Martin is rolling another carrot between his palms. Jerry is standing behind him, watching over Martin's shoulder.
Bruce stands up.
“Are my best friends bitching out on me? I asked you a question. Who is the best? Who has been doing this since they were teenagers, hell, since before that? Who has been doing this their whole lives?”
Jerry and Marty finally look up at Bruce and then at each other. Martin has been doing this his whole life. He remembers sawing dowels his father gave him when he was five. He remembers trying to drive nails into the spare boards his father brought home from his own work sites. He has been doing this, and only this, for as long as he can remember.
“Who is the best?” Bruce asks again.
Jerry slowly stretches his arms out to the side, encompassing the three of them in his arm half-circle.
“You're goddamned right!” Bruce says.
Bruce sits down again, this time next to Martin. He pulls one of the smaller carrots from Martin's bag and holds it up to his face like he has never seen anything like it before.
“How can you eat these every day?” Bruce asks.
Martin crunches into another one.
Jerry sits down, too, and takes a carrot of his own.
“Are these why you're so big and strong,” Jerry asks, smiling.
“It's why his ears and his front teeth are so big.”
“I bet you take giant, orange shits. I bet it looks like a Uhaul truck coming out of the Lincoln tunnel.”
Bruce laughs as he bites into his carrot. He winces and continues to chew as if being forced to finish the vegetable by cruel terrorists.
Martin throws the last bit of his burrito into his mouth. He chews it quietly and swallows before clearing his throat.
“St. Pierre will dominate Serra,” he says, still without looking up. “He is a scared fighter. He fights at his best when he is the most terrified and he just wasn't scared enough last time. But now he is so afraid of losing again, of getting embarrassed again, that he will be training his ass off. He's going to take it to the bone. I think Serra started something. I think GSP is going to be out for blood this time. He is the future of the sport, a super athlete who trains with world-class coaches and is going to be incredible at everything. No way Serra survives a scared GSP. GSP by knockout.”
Bruce and Jerry are stunned by the sudden fully-formed thoughts from their very negative, seemingly distant, distracted friend. Bruce takes a moment to take it all in, but then nods aggressively in agreement. He is still somewhat surprised and confused by the sudden topic shift, as well as the cold fighting logic from Martin. He wasn't prepared for it, but he welcomes having an ally in the argument.
“Definitely,” Bruce says, still nodding, “I agree, St. Pierre by first round knockout or submission. Probably knockout because he is going to be mad.”
“He will want to make a statement,” Martin continues. “If he can make an example of Serra, he can put the other welterweights on notice. I think his performance will put a little fear and doubt in the hearts of the other guys in the division.”
Jerry spits the chewed carrot into a napkin and crushes it in his hand.
“Well, those are interesting theories, Doctor Martin, but Serra wins again, this time by submission. He is going to expose the fake champion and then break him.”
“So what's the bet, tough guy?” Bruce asks. “If you're so sure, lay your money down.”
“Five hundred bucks, winner take all,” Jerry says.
The men look at each other. They know they don't have that kind of money to throw around right now, not with the economy the way it is. Jerry himself realizes this, too, and back tracks with a laugh.
“Yeah, I wish I could do that. How about... loser brings lunch for a week?”
“Deal,” Bruce says, “and don't forget, I don't like mayo, or the crusts, on my sandwiches.”
Back into their work, Martin re-enters his zone. The hammering drowns out all other noise. It sets a rhythm, a hypnotic rhythm, and sends him speeding through the rest of the afternoon.
The sun is low in the afternoon sky when it finally breaks through the cloud cover. The rays glow in the windows of the two on-site office trailers a few hundred feet behind Martin. The trailers are white, pristine, and he turns his back to avoid the sting of the glare. While his back is turned, the door to the lead trailer opens and a man in jeans and flannel steps out. He is on the phone and looks to his right. Up the road, a large black SUV is pulling into the parking lot. When it stops and the occupants, two men and a woman, get out and close their doors, Martin's hypnosis ends. Even amid the chaos and noise of his work, the muted thud of the SUV doors draws his attention. He stops the jack hammer. As he steadies it up against one of the ridges he carved in the asphalt, Jerry walks up behind him. Jerry's eyes, too, are on the SUV.
“You gotta be shitting me, Marty!” Jerry says. “I told you. I told you our time was up. We're winding down and they're done with us, I told you!”
Martin takes off his helmet and wipes his brow. He squints through the glare at the three figures making their way onto the site. He is trying to see who has been sent.
“We don't know that for sure,” he says.
“Are you high? Why else would they come out here? You think that big black company SUV is here for a tea party? Are they here to give out gold stars for how good we've been? The only reason to send the suits is to trim the fat. They need to assess productivity and expenditures or some shit. They need to streamline profit margins, limit their overhead and risk, right?”
Martin furrows his brow and cocks his head at Jerry's word choice. Bruce joins the two in watching the suits make their ways up the trailer steps and into the site office.
“They need to put us on the street,” Bruce says, spitting into Martin's drainage ditch.
Jerry spits, as well. He shifts from foot to foot and pulls his hard hat back on his head, jamming it down into his scalp as if his head has grown in the one minute he has had the helmet off.
“What the hell am I supposed to do? This is our only income, we have two kids and another one on the way, just what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Bruce offers an option:
“You could go back to selling your body. You still giving those blow job lessons in Tilly Park?”
“Yeah, jackass, and could you thank your mom for me, she's been really helpful. Showed me a lot of nifty tricks.”
The three men watch the suits walk into the trailer. When the door closes, Martin looks around the site. A dozen other men have stopped working to watch the new arrivals, too.
“I swear to God, if they call me into that trailer I'm going to lose it,” Jerry says.
“If they do fire us, they have to give us money, they can't just fire us without a reason and kick us out, right?”
“There might be a severance package,” Martin says, still looking at the other men.
“I'll sever their packages,” Jerry says.
“Not necessarily,” Bruce counters, “this is what we've been paying into unemployment for.”
“That's not enough for a family, though, not for long. My kids, man, you think my unemployment check will cover three kids for the next six months?”
“What am I going to tell Sheila?” Bruce asks. He isn't looking for a response. It's the first time he has considered actually telling his wife that he lost his job. He tries to imagine what she will say. He starts to imagine the worst things she could do, but stops himself.
Martin is not showing the fear Bruce and Jerry are showing. He doesn't really seem to care, at all. He puts his hard hat and gloves back on and goes to pick up the jack hammer. The thoughts make him want to bring the noise back.
“I guess someone isn't too worried about all of this,” Jerry says. They turn and watch Martin pick up the jack hammer and put his goggles back on.
“Aren't you worried, man?” Bruce asks. “You have some other high-paying job lined up we don't know about?”
“Well, if they're going to fire us, there isn't anything we can do. If they fire me I won't have to do this shit anymore. If they don't fire me I have to keep doing this shit. So I don't know, either way is kind of like, who cares.”
Martin puts on the helmet and slides the chin straps around the arms of the goggles. He looks at the other two:
“Maybe getting fired is just what we need.”
Jerry and Bruce look at each other. They can't believe what they are hearing, and from Martin Bell of all people.
“Marty, this isn't Fight Club,” Bruce says, shaking his head. “This isn't the push we need to wake up and start getting serious about our lives. We need these jobs, man. Our families need these jobs... wait, is that shit from those CDs Jerry gave you?”
“Hey, those CDs are really helpful,” Jerry says.
“Is this God closing a door but opening a window or some shit?”
“Seriously, Marty, what's your back up plan? What about your girls, man? What about your alimony? You think you're going to walk off this work site and straight into another job that pays just as well? Do you know how long it took Greg Simons to get another job after they let him go? Nine months. And do you know where he's working now?”
“Burger king,” Martin says.
“Motherfucking Burger King,” Jerry yells. “One of the best cement guys in the business is flipping burgers and going home every night smelling like colon cancer and shattered dreams. Is that your plan, flip burgers with teenagers and junkies?”
Martin adjusts the goggles and fires up the jack hammer. As it roars to life, Bruce and Jerry shake their heads and walk away.
As the trench continues to stretch out away from the building, the first workers are called into the trailer to receive the news of their prospective employment. One of the first men called in is Shawn Mackay, a concrete and asphalt man with a blonde ponytail and a beard. At six-foot-three and two-hundred and forty pounds, he has to turn sideways to fit through the trailer door. He doesn't have to duck down but he does. It makes him feel bigger when he straightens back up again on the other side of the door.
Whatever meeting takes place, it takes less than sixty seconds before he bursts back out through the door, screaming. He doesn't turn sideways are duck on the way out. He simply kicks the door and walks through, his shoulders scraping at the entryway margins as the door slams into the side of the trailer. When the door swings back again, Martin can see that the door did some damage on its swing. A long, thin dark line mark a continuous dent in the trailer's siding exactly as tall as the door. The sunlight wobbles on the glass as the trailer trembles from the impact.
Shawn makes his way down the stairs and spikes his helmet into the sidewalk like it's a football. Two men, nearly-as-large, exit after him. Martin doesn't know them. They follow Shawn as he makes his way into the parking lot. When he turns back toward the trailer to wave his arms and scream threats and obscenities, the men stop and stand side by side, silent. They don't respond to his threats. When Shawn moves toward them as if he has had enough and wants to fight, they remain still except for a slight raising of their chins. Martin realizes they are here to ensure that no one gets desperate, or manic, or violent, or suddenly inspired to cause massive and expensive property damage.
Shawn turns from the men and their upturned chins and stomps to his car. He is hissing curses even after he slams the door. He does his best to peel out of the parking lot.
Martin smiles. He turns back to the jack hammer. He will wait patiently for his turn to storm out of the office. It is what it is. He rides the jack hammer for another forty minutes. When he looks to his watch, it tells him it is 3:57pm, Pacific Standard Time. He looks back to the trailers. The door is closed and the site is quiet. He looks around for Bruce and Jerry. Bruce is on a ladder handing tools to a man inside the building. He can't find Jerry. He considers the possibility that the three of them could make it out of the day, or even the week, with their jobs intact. He considers their value to the company. Maybe the owners want to hold on to the older, more experienced workers. Maybe this is a slight restructuring meant to trim the workforce back, keep it lean and efficient. It is possible they would all be chosen as veterans who work consistently well. He is happy for Jerry and Bruce. He is not as happy as they will be, but as he puts his gloves into his hat and makes the walk toward his truck, he doesn't mind the thought of coming back to the site with the guys tomorrow.
His gear goes in the truck's back seat and as he closes the door, his phone vibrates in his pocket.
He doesn't recognize the number.
“Hello, this is Martin,” he says.
A woman's voice chirps into the phone.
“Hi, I'm calling about a craigslist ad for a space heater, did I call the right number?”
Martin pinches the phone between his ear and shoulder and settles into the truck's driver seat. He was about to toss his wallet into the center console's cup holder, but he opens it and counts the bills. The count doesn't take long. His wallet is holding two one-dollar bills.
“Yes you did, that is my ad,” he says, starting the truck.
“Oh great, well I'm very interested in seeing it, is it still available?”
A dog, small and yippy, the kind of dog Martin never enjoyed being around, is barking in the background. The woman tells the dog to stop, to settle down, right into the phone. When she yells for the dog to sit, Martin jerks the phone from his ear.
“It is,” he says.
“I'm sorry,” she says, shifting the phone, “Brutus, stop it! Stop it! I'm so sorry, what was that? Do you still have it?”
“I do, it is still available,” Martin says again, turning up the truck's air conditioner.
“Brutus!” she screams.
“Can I bring it to you sometime this evening?” Martin asks.
“Yes, yes, again, I'm so sorry. Yes, this evening, that would be great.”
“How about 5:30?” Martin asks, turning the air vent directly toward his closed eyes.
“Perfect, yes that's perfect, right after Brutus has his dinner. Here, let me give you my address.”
Martin listens to the woman scold her dog and rifle through drawers and cabinets while she tells him her address. She starts to give him directions from Highway twenty-six and he stops listening. He writes the address down on a napkin from the glove compartment and trusts that google maps will get him there much more quickly and easily than distracted dog lady.
When Martin finally hears silence on the other end of the phone, he jumps back into the conversation.
“Okay, great, thank you, I'll see you at 5:30.”
Martin hangs up while the woman begins her next tirade against Brutus. He looks down at his wallet, then to the truck's gas gauge. He has a little more than a quarter of a tank.
He pulls out of the lot and heads home.