Martin steps out into the morning air. He hasn't walked out of the county jail from a night spent in lock up in almost twenty years. He smiles at the thought that the last time he was locked up it was also because of a drunken bar fight. Similar outcomes in both events, and similar effects. The events from Bailey's Pub are starting to show. Martin grips his bruised knuckles and shudders under a cold breeze. The black eye is bigger, darker. The cut over his eyebrow is still wet at the edges. Sleeping on a cement floor didn't help him look or feel any better, but Martin smiles into the rising sun's glow. He takes a big, greedy breath. It isn't a better morning than usual, but it's different.
The door opens again and the teenager from Tuco's parking lot walks out, still sporting his bright orange sweatshirt. When Martin looks over at him the kid gives a nod and continues walking. Bruce pulls up in his mini van. He is Martin's ride. The teenager doesn't appear to have a ride as he makes his way up the long lonely sidewalk back into town.
“I bet you're ready to get home,” Bruce says. Martin shuts the passenger door behind him and shivers in the van's warmth. He watches the boy walk toward town, head down, arms crossed. The boy walks without looking up. He knows he doesn't need to look up, there will be no friend in a mini van for him.
“Your place?” Bruce asks.
Martin nods, He is still watching the boy when they drive off.
Bruce drives to the apartment. He speeds. This is not the time to be late for work, not if they want to stay on the still employed list. When the van screeches into the apartment's driveway, Martin has less than fifteen minutes to shower and prepare for work, so he storms past the broken TV and spilled whiskey, stripping his clothes off as he goes. He is down to his underwear and socks by the time he turns on the shower. He is naked and carrying his work clothes by the time the water is hot.
He forgets about the gash on his eyebrow until he plunges his face into the steaming water spray. He winces and rattles off his favorite curses, but he keeps his face under the water. He winces and curses again when his shampoo touches the wound. The water pressure and heat also draw his attention to scrapes and cuts he wasn't aware of, along his forehead and the sides of his head under the hair. The shower doesn't feel good, but it does wage a successful war against the emerging hangover and the less than two hours of sleep he got on the jail cell floor.
“Two minutes, man, then we gotta go!” Bruce yells from the living room. He is looking at the smashed TV unit when he yells.
Martin hears him. He is already lacing up his boots. It takes a few seconds to put on deodorant and his shirt and grab his coat.
“Almost there,” he says as he walks down the hall. He steps into the kitchen, looking for something.
“Damn, man, that was quick,” Bruce says. Martin ignores him, finally finding what he was looking for by the sink: sunglasses. He steps to the wall mirror and looks at his black eye and puts the glasses on. Even before they slide into place, Martin notices the black eye, the swelling, the colors, the red gash and its handful of small stitches. He thought glasses would cover the wound, help him avoid talking about it all day at the site. He thought it might be better in the eyes of the owners if he was seen as trying to cover it up.
He throws the glasses on the counter.
“Let's do it,” he says. He smiles and Bruce smiles back.
Bruce is driving and Martin sits in silence. The only communication for the first two minutes is in quick sideways glances and sighing and throat clearing. Bruce is trying really hard not to barrage Martin with questions. He wants to know everything. He is trying to respect Martin's silence and wait for him to offer up any details. The struggle is proving difficult, and after three minutes he can't take it anymore.
Just as he opens his mouth to speak, Martin cuts in.
“Do you know what kind of music teenagers are into these days?”
The twisted vines of Bruce's thoughts did not include teenage girl musical preferences.
“Teenage girls, what kind of music do they like? Is it Justin Bieber or something? Katy Perry?”
Bruce sits up, adjusts.
“Well, Sheila says Gabi really wants to see lady Gaga in concert.”
“Lady Gaga?” Martin asks.
Martin takes the information back into silence. Lady Gaga? Time to search all things about Lady Gaga and see what's possible.
“Okay, so you got to ask a question, now can I ask you a question?”
Martin's phone vibrates. He takes it out and sees that he has a new text message. Bruce continues:
“Remember last night when we were drinking at the bar, and then you got in a fight with Shawn Macky and body-slammed him and rage-punched him into the hospital?”
Martin reads the message. It is about his hunting knives:
those are good lookin knives would love to take a look at them meet tonight?
“Remember how you were punching his unconscious face into the floor boards without mercy?”
Martin doesn't answer Bruce. He texts a response:
Sure, how about tonight at 8:00? Where?
Bruce is talking to the windshield.
“Like some sort of psycho? Like a crazy Chuck Liddell? Like a guy I'd never met. That guy looked familiar. He reminded me of a guy I grew up with, a guy I work with every day, a guy my kids know. Similar, but also not the same, at all. I felt like I'd known that guy for decades but had never actually seen him before.
Martin sends the message and puts the phone back in his coat pocket.
“Can you tell me about that guy? Can you tell me where that came from? Marty?”
“What happened last night?”
“It was just a stupid bar fight. They happen all the time.”
Bruce jerks the wheel to avoid hitting a slow car in his lane. He hadn't been paying attention.
“Oh do they, Marty, do they happen all the time? Cool, good to know, now when was the last time they happened to you?”
Martin's hand passes over his gash and the stitches. He pushes gently against the swollen eyelid. He doesn't wince.
“I guess it has been awhile.” As he answers his phone vibrates again.
“Been awhile?” Bruce yells, “You looked like a UFC middleweight contender!”
Martin looks at his phone again:
Make it 9:00. 1518 N. Rawlings Rd #4
Martin responds to the text saying he will be there. He doesn't say anything but we see the tiny slit of a smile sprout from one corner of his mouth.
“That double leg and body slam?”
“Yeah, except you haven't wrestled since college.”
“Yeah, well...” he finally looks over at Bruce, “you never really stop being a wrestler.”
On the site, Martin continues work as usual. No one else on the site does. Wherever Martin walks today he is getting one of two looks. Either guys smile at him and nod or fist pump their approval of his fight victory, or guys scowl at him and look as disapproving and threatening as they can. Apparently Shawn Macky still has a few friends on the job, and the fact that Martin put him in the hospital doesn't please them.
Everyone is talking about it. Everyone except Martin. Martin doesn't want to talk about it, and anyone who asks gets vague answers and disinterest from him. They have to get their stories from Jerry and Bruce, who are more than willing to lay out all of the drama, every blood-dripping detail.
Martin is surveying a stretch of parking lot work when Jerry walks up.
“Yeah, there he is, Mr. Bailey's Pub champion himself. How are you feeling, brother? Ready for another 5-rounder tonight? After what I saw I'd put money on you.”
“Yeah. I'm doing fine,” Martin says, his eyes on the work.
“How are you here? You didn't break out of jail to come to work, did you?”
“Like you said, we need this job.”
Jerry gets closer and squints. He is surveying the damage.
“Looks like that first shot he threw dinged you a little bit, eh?”
“Protect yourself at all times, right?”
“That right there is the difference between assault, and self defense. Hey, we're about ready to break for lunch, you comin?”
“Nah, not today, man,” Martin says.
“Dude? After what happened last night you're not going to sit with us and answer all of our way too enthusiastic questions about the fight?”
“Just going to leave us all hangin?”
“We're going to make stuff up, you know.”
“Well at least include my charm and good looks in your legends.”
Jerry stops smiling. He turns to leave but stops halfway.
“Seriously, Marty, are you okay?”
Martin nods and touches the wound again.
“Yeah, yeah, it's not that bad. I think it looks worse than it is.”
“No, I mean, are you doing okay? That last night... you were...”
Jerry looks away, off toward the parking lot and the group heading to lunch. He considers letting it go, saving it for another time and place. But he can't. He turns to face Martin.
“Come on, man, you were a different person. I've known you a long time. Bruce, Evan, we've all known you a long time. None of us have ever seen you like that. You're Marty Bell, Mr. Nice Guy... the quiet one... Mr. Dependable. That guy last night was...”
“Alcohol does weird things to people.”
Jerry is not convinced. He wants more. He is both genuinely excited to hear about what Martin was thinking, and also concerned for his friend's mental state.
“Well, can you introduce me to that other Martin sometime? I'd be interested to talk to him.”
“Maybe later,” Martin says.
“I'll buy you a burrito,” Jerry says with a smile.
This is a legitimate offer, as Martin is still broke and will be going without lunch today. He stops, actually considering accepting. But he is just not in the mood.
“Tempting, my friend, very tempting. How about tomorrow?”
“Nice try, jackass, tomorrow is Saturday.”
“Some other time, then. Text me tomorrow and we'll figure something out.”
“And you'll tell me everything?”
“I'll tell you everything I remember.”
Bruce walks up.
“You better tell us everything,” Bruce says, “you have to promise or I won't give you this.”
Bruce holds up a slip of paper. It is an address and a name, Charles Finn. No phone number.
“I told Sheila your story and she wanted to help. It's a man's name. I hope your lady friend isn't already married.”
Possibly the drug dealer's address.
“Wow, thanks, man, that was quick.”
Martin reaches for the paper and Bruce pulls it away.
“Lunch, the three of us, and you tell us everything.”
Martin relaxes for a second, seeming to give in, and then shoots his hand out and snatches the piece of paper from Bruce's fingertips. Bruce's mouth drops open. Jerry slams his hands together and yells, “Ha! Those reflexes! I knew it, our best friend is a secret agent!”
Martin looks at the piece of paper and smiles. Seeing Marty light up just a little makes Bruce and Jerry smile, too. It is the smile of friends who have seen their friend face setback after setback. They're all hopeful about this glimmer of hope.
“You're welcome, and you owe me now, so it's a win win.”
“Tell Sheila thank you for me. If I had any money at all I would buy her a gift.”
“I'm sure she will accept payment in favors,” Bruce says. He tries to close his mouth before the last words come out but it's too late.
“Favors?” Martin smiles.
Jerry burps out a laugh and then can't stop laughing. Bruce immediately regrets his choice of words. He shakes his head and puts his hands up.
“Wait,” he starts.
“Hey, you said it,” Martin says.
“You're a bad person, you know that, right? Both of you. Terrible people.”
Jerry and Bruce laugh their way to the parking lot and drive to lunch. Martin watches them go and thinks about the interest in the fight, and the looks on their faces. There is real surprise that he, Martin Bell, would have done something like that. He remembers they aren't in his head, they have only seen him here on the job site. They haven't seen him in the recliner in the living room. They haven't seen the empty bottles of Jack. But seeing a little bit of the darkness rise in the bar inspired an admiration Martin wasn't expecting. He had never seen them so interested. Taking down Macky really meant something to them. Was it because he was a bully? Was it because Martin was fearless as the underdog? Maybe they just enjoyed something other than the troubling average of their normal lives. They liked seeing one of their own become something else.
When Martin looks up, two of the newer crew members, Jason and Caleb, are looking his way and talking to each other. They seem to be enjoying the stories they are creating. For a second, Martin appreciates the attention. For a second, the admiration feels good. He feels proud, something he hasn't felt in a long time. After all he has sold, given away, or lost recently, it feels good to reclaim something.
Martin rides the small high through his hunger. At two-thirty, Bruce is leaving and Martin reminds him to come back to pick him up at the end of his shift. As they talk near Bruce's mini van, one of corporate's enforcers calls to him from the office trailer stairs. He is being called in again.
Without looking at him, Martin tells Bruce to stick around for a few minutes.
As Martin steps into the trailer, it is only Susan sitting behind the table.
“Hello, Martin, please have a seat,” she says. Martin sits in the chair and leans back, relaxed.
“What do you need, boss?” He tosses the word “boss” out like he is saying it to a toddler.
“There is a rumor going around the site that Bailey's Pub was the scene of some sort of intra company brawl last night.”
Martin is blank, emotionless. He keeps a good poker face, knowing she already has the answers to her questions. Susan is probing and watching his reactions, not to test the validity of the rumors, but to test Martin's response to them.
“Your name seems to keep coming up in the reports.”
Still nothing from Martin. He's not biting. She is going to have to do all of the heavy lifting here.
“I don't need to explain to you why it would be bad for you, and for all of us as a company, to have our employees starting bar brawls, disrupting private businesses, destroying property, and getting arrested. I'm sure you can see how we might frown on that sort of thing.”
Still nothing from Martin.
“Martin, I chose you to stay on with us because you are a good worker. You are good at your job, you work well with the rest of the team, and you don't cause problems. You're simple and reliable, and we like that a lot.”
“And because my father built this company.”
“That... is a very small factor. You are here because of who you are, not who your father was.”
“You mean who my father is?”
Susan is flustered. Martin can see on her face that she can't believe her own word choices there.
“He is still alive, you know. What happened might have killed other men, but he's still alive.”
“Yes, who your father is. It has little to nothing to do with that, you are here because of your skills, and because you are someone we can see potentially staying on with the company after this season of restructuring.”
Martin is finally caught by something. He might still have a job in a few weeks? Could they possibly keep him on, or is this a lie to get him to stay in line?
“But I'm not terribly excited about keeping a man on staff who flies off the hinges and body-slams co-workers in drunken bar fights.”
Martin is somewhat surprised at her knowledge of the details. Apparently she did hear all about it.
“You have heard a lot of rumors.”
“It's a small world.”
“He isn't a co-worker,” Martin says.
“Shawn Macky, he isn't a co-worker. He is a former employee. He is no longer on staff here.”
“He is no longer on staff here? Oh, well, body-slam away then.”
“I was defending myself.”
Susan leans forward and folds her hands on the desk.
“There are reports that you antagonized him, that you were verbally confrontational and that caused him to attack you, that you provoked him.”
“I know at least three witnesses who would disagree with that statement.”
“He is also now in the hospital with broken ribs, a broken nose, and his jaw wired shut.”
“Maybe it will be good for him to keep his mouth shut for awhile.”
“Did you also hear that no charges are being filed?”
Susan stops. She obviously did hear this and it shuts down her arguments for the moment. It is apparent that she wasn't ready for Martin to have legitimate answers to her questions. She is annoyed, but there is something else there, too. Is she impressed?
“Yes, I am aware that he isn't pressing charges.”
“Small world, indeed.”
“If you think beating the hell out of someone is erased by the fact that they don't press charges, you are not the man we thought you were. As I said, we can't have you work with us if you are going to fight every disgruntled employee you run into when you're off site. Whether he failed to press charges or not, you were arrested and jailed overnight. Please know that this isn't something we will tolerate. If it happens again, whether it's your fault or not, whether the person presses charges or not, these bonus weeks will end, any potential job with us going forward will end, along with any hope for a decent reference for your next employer. Am I being clear?
Martin rises to leave. As he reaches for the door:
“You are excused for the rest of the day. It was a long night and has no doubt been a long day so you may leave when you're ready...”
“I'm fine to work, I can finish out...”
“With pay,” Susan continues, “take some time for yourself, clean yourself up and get some rest.”
With pay? No objections from Martin. He nods and opens the door.
“And Martin... don't ever call me ma'am, again.”
When Bruce drops Martin at Bailey's Pub, his truck is where he left it. Once inside, he looks at the clock. It's almost three o'clock. School is about to let out. He starts up the truck and heads west.
He pushes the CD button on the stereo.
“You are traversing the maze. When you look for things outside yourself to blame, you will find a dead end. You will hit a wall. Don't blame the wall. When you blame others for your journey through the maze, you fan the flames of anger. Breathe in and know this: you will reach dead ends. Will you go back and find your mistake or will you rage against the walls? It feels good to blame the walls. It feels good to hate them, to scream at them, to bang your fists into them. But until you realize where you went wrong, you will stay angry and lost... and your fists will be sore.”
Martin looks down at the steering wheel and his own bruised and bloody knuckles. He grips the wheel all the tighter.
Sometimes it feels good to punch the walls.
As he makes a right turn, a long carved sign appears from behind the trees. “Aspen Elementary School” hand-carved into the wood. He is a little early but there is already a line of cars awaiting the closing bell. He avoids the line and pulls into a parking spot, instead.
Before he turns off the truck, the CD finishes a thought:
“If we are going to find the root of the anger, we won't find it out in the world. We will find it here, within us, in the choices we make, in the things we say, and in the facing of our own fears.”
Martin turns the truck off and squeezes his hands together. He looks into the rear-view mirror at his swollen eye and slightly bloody bandage. These things have given him pride since last night, but now, waiting to surprise his daughters, the thought of them seeing him like this and having to explain to them how and why he got into a bar fight deflates the pride.
The bell sounds across the campus. Nothing he can do about it now.
A crowd of students and parents begins to flow from the school's front doors. The kids bound away from their scholastic captors and squeal at their newfound freedom. An older woman pleads with the children to walk, to look out for cars. The children are too busy looking for parents and siblings and showcasing finger paintings and paper bag puppets and blue ribbons and gold stars. The parents are doing their best to seem impressed. Martin watches many of them fake their enthusiasm very well. Some don't fake it well, and others are too busy texting to notice their kids, at all.
Martin sees Hillary first. She bounds out the doors and hops and spins with as much enthusiasm as any of the other kids. She loves life, everything about it and everyone in it. She stops and turns, talking to someone Martin can't see. A few seconds later, Juliette appears. She does not have the same lust for life. She displays the exact amount of excitement and joy a teenage girl is allowed to display, something near runway model or death row inmate.
Martin can see that Juliette is also talking to someone, but not Hillary. They are both standing and waiting for someone still inside the school. A man emerges from the front doors and walks toward the parking lot. The girls take a position on either side of him and they chat happily as they walk to a shiny black Audi. It is high end, high class, expensive. It does not fit in with the other vehicles in the lot, especially the vehicles of the teachers.
“Who the hell?” Martin whispers.
Martin grabs the door handle and is about to get out when Victoria appears. She jogs out to the Audi before everyone gets in. She receives a generous hug from Hillary, hugs an unwilling Juliette, and says something to the man. An agreement is reached easily and the girls get in the car with the man and drive away while Victoria jogs back into the school.
Martin's mind goes back to his birthday dinner with the girls.
“Mr. Saxon, I presume?”
For a brief moment, Martin is relieved at not having to explain his bruises to his daughters. That relief quickly fades. He wanted to surprise his girls. He wanted to see their faces light up and feel Hillary's powerful hug and get maybe a flicker of a smile from Juliette. He wanted to see them happy. But seeing them chatting with this Saxon guy, seeing them hop happily into his car, Martin knows seeing their dad wouldn't have made them that happy. He tells himself it is fine, that he will see them tomorrow, that they will be very happy to see him tomorrow. He tells himself they would have been at least as happy to see him, but it feels like a lie.
When he turns his truck on, the CD continues. Martin lets the voice get half a sentence out before jamming his finger into the power button. He doesn't put on music, he lets the sound of the truck's revving engine fill the cab as he drives out of the lot way too quickly.