The weeds need pulling—for the sake of the crop. The little two-by-five foot plot at the edge of yard, in the only section that gets any dependable light, is overrun after another week of neglect. Grasping handfuls of the unwanted shoots I wonder the purpose of weeds, if they are knowingly belligerent, or mistake themselves for being wanted. If I were a weed I think I’d just rather not know.
For my late start this year the few rows of vegetables had come along, although the squash and pumpkins—a nod to being a New Englander now— are on the runty side. I’ve taken to calling it my Violent Garden. Mistakes have been made, sure, but there was always a chance to make amends, to coax a tomato plant or my novice experiment with corn onward to continued life.
The neighbors on each side have taken an interest in my work. An old woman whose name is—I think—Symonds puts all her cats out in the morning. She once gave me a list of fertilizer that was covered in feline hair. The next time she saw me, as she stood in a long turquoise bathrobe with hot pink Crocs and her limp white hair in curlers, she wanted to know which plant food I had chosen. I couldn’t remember any name she had given. I haven’t seen her since.
I didn’t tell her I’m not trying to win any ribbons. Spading the earth a bit and yanking weeds every Sunday afternoon keeps me sane. It grounds me in a life: a purpose, outside of the rat race.
The other neighbor gets it. His name is Mitch, I’m pretty sure. Mitch Kellogg—Piper would know. I’ll have to ask her again later. If I don’t remember, it’s because I’ve taken to thinking of him as the Handyman. The Handyman is constantly tooling around in his adjoining yard, seemingly in the middle of a dozen different half-done projects. I glance over. There is a new, partially complete brick path leading to a raised patio in the rear of the shady yard; in its current state it looks more like an excuse to have large piles of dirt and random stacks of red bricks. The Handyman works slowly.
As I take another questioning look at the largest mound, Kellogg comes out of a sliding-glass door with a gigantic pile of raw meat on a platter. It’s a Sunday, so another barbecue is about to commence. Actually, he seems to grill most days.
Kellogg takes a few steps down what is finished of the brick walk before quickly abandoning it for the grass, deftly avoiding the construction zone. I’m noticed a few seconds later.
“Will! Still at it, huh?” He barks cheerfully, his tanned bald head already glistening a bit. Lines on his face appear. “’Bout time for the harvest, isn’t it?” I throw my trowel in the ground with a satisfying thunk and remove my gloves.
“Right. I’d give it about another week. But getting there, getting there.” Balancing back on my heels I search for something else to say. Nothing comes.
“Sounds right to me,” Kellogg replies, taking a wide stance as he balances a full butcher shop with his right hand. He nods, as if the Violent Garden is a work of art that will feed humanity.
A dog barks in the distance.
“Well, how is everything?” Kellogg asks, still clearly inspecting my corn stalks. “Work okay? Keeping you busy—am I right?” he laughs loudly.
“You know, can’t complain,” I begin one pleasantry, then reach in my bag for, “Just the same old, same old.”
“Well, you know I’m retired,” Kellogg proclaims wistfully, as if I did not already know this. As far as I knew he’d been retired for five years, and liked to either reminisce about his youth or revel in his current age. He looked to be only about fifty-five, but perhaps he actually saved and planned and all that stuff you’re told to do. “They have you on something new, do they?” Kellogg asked, seeming to enjoy poking at the idea that I spend my days in an office building.
“No, can’t say there is.” The tools are picked up before brushing off two dirty knees.
“I understand” the Handyman laughs again, taking my remark as a big joke, turning and beginning to make his way slowly to the most elaborate grill I’ve ever seen, “All very hush hush, then. I get it.”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are fresh out their packages, gripping the edges of their shiny podiums like Sunday matinee world leaders. The hot lights have yet to boil the one with the mercurial temper or melt the sheen of the other’s impersonal detachment. The eager spectators behind the moderator, seeking a night of entertainment, haven’t even worked themselves into an average jeer yet.
Less than ten minutes into the third presidential debate, our Sunday night is interrupted.
My phone buzzes guiltily from the dining room table. Piper lets out of soft laugh from her divot in the couch’s corner.
“Happens every time,” she sympathizes passively without moving.
“Don’t think we’re not rewinding it when I get back,” I warn, throwing a blanket off. Just as I get up the crowd’s first lusty whoop is emitted from the speakers.
“Hello?” I ask mechanically, shifting my weight with a hand planted on the table, tucking the phone under my ear.
“Mr. Carlson?” a deeply elegant paternal voice greets me. The guy could do voiceover work for spicy deodorants or spark plugs.
“Yes? How can I help you?” The tone belied that I didn’t need any help myself, besides getting back to the debate rapidly heating up in the other room without me.
“Mr. Carlson, I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time. My name is Justin Allen. I’m calling from Pulaski National. Are you aware of our corporation?” I wasn’t sure. They either made hydroelectric power or sausages—surely this wasn’t a collection agency. I was working on a personal record for staying off that radar.
“Um. . . . I hear you do great work,” comes out the first thing I can think of. Piper groans from whatever was just said on the screen.
“Excellent, yes. We do try,” Justin’s rich timber comes over the receiver. “That’s very good news. Mr. Carlson. We have recently reviewed your online résumé, and were highly impressed with your background and experience. I am calling to offer you a position with the Pulaski family. The starting salary is eighty thousand.” The resonant voice pauses for a moment but I remain silent. “Are you interested?”
Hiring in the private sector seems to have really picked up the last few months, I thought. Why do economists keep saying the economy is sluggish? Beats me.
“I really appreciate the offer, but I already have a job. One that I really enjoy,” I let him down easily. He takes it remarkably well.
“If I might ask, Mr. Carlson, where you do work right now?”
“I’ve been with Ulster McKnight for the last several months,” I reply. “I guess I just haven’t updated my résumé since being hired. There’s been some other confusion about that recently, so I apologize,” starting to turn my attention more to the strident voices in the living room. I hope he won’t ask more. He does.
“Ulster McKnight? Very prestigious company—yes, sounds about right.” That I’ve gotten away as a hire doesn’t seem to faze Justin. Oh well. I can’t help but drum my fingers once across the table. “One more thing then, Mr. Carlson. We’d like to update our records so not to bother you in the future: what is it that you do at Ulster McKnight?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” the deep voice said a bit too quickly, yet sounding surprised. “Well, could you just give a few tasks then, or skills you’ve developed while being employed?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you there either. I don’t know myself.”
“No, no, I am the one who should apologize Mr. Carlson,” Justin reassured. “It’s just that I have a blank where your current work history is supposed to go. Could you please tell me whatever you do know about your present job, so I can type something—anything—in?”
“You know as much as I do. All I do is show up at 8 am,” I said. “That’s the job.” The voice takes this rejection well. There is a quick clatter of typing from the other side that continues for several seconds. Justin is softly, haltingly sounding out exactly what I tell him.
“Alright Mr. Carlson. You’re all set and I’ve marked your current positon as ‘unknown’,” he concludes in a congenial clipped tone. “Thank you for your time.” A second later he was off the line.
“Who was that?” Piper says, taking a second to look over as I fall back onto my half of the couch. Without waiting for a response, she wants to fill me on the hoopla I’ve missed. “Trump’s promised every family in American a free firearm if elected, for protection, and Hillary attempted a joke. It didn’t end well.”
“Job offer,” is all I say, pulling the small arrow across the screen with my finger to play back the last five minutes.
“Another one?” is all Piper says.
The last of the coffee brews a small pot the next morning. Enough for one cup each, at least. Piper won’t be happy though. I scour the pantry for anything to chew on before a shower. The same blackening banana I’ve been passing over for a week is left untouched on the microwave. I should really stop off for something after work, I remind myself with a yawn. Recently I seem more tired than usual at the end of the day.
Traffic is backed up again. We creep. Construction along Route 1 between Mystic and Groton has tripled the normal ten-minute commute, but the smooth wider lanes are nearly complete. As has become habit, I stare at a worker or two as I pass by. One that I pick out has a white hardhat slightly askew, leaning heavily on the reflective caution sign he’s holding. I wonder about the guy, if he’s just clocked in and already thinking how many hours are before him, or is drained of energy, near the end of yet another shift. I was glad to not be him. Finally pulling into the large Ulster McKnight lot fifteen minutes later, I have my pick of spots for once. Good day so far.
It’s early October, well into my fourth month. It’s all routine now. Automatic. For all I know, the time with Ulster McKnight has gone quickly. My mind suddenly flashes back to the first time I parked in this particular lot, Q Lot.
* * * * *
It was a sweltering early June morning. I was already sweating from the suit I was wearing. Rather, the suit was part of it, but more perspiration came from the stress of another interview. My eighth. Funny, I was the first to try for a job out here in Connecticut, back when I still a teacher in Illinois. That effort had been for naught, but Piper had flown out soon afterward, in December 2014. She scored a job on her first attempt. A year and a half later, I was still trying.
I found the employment office just where I had left it after the previous whiff, in March. I checked that my tie was straight in the window before heading in. Each section of the revolving doors had the company’s motto etched into the glass. I read it once again as I pushed myself through: “Peace is Uncompromising.”
I remembered the temp at the desk had also been there in March—a blonde woman most likely in her mid-twenties named Faith, who was now sorting papers with a flick before turning to me with a large smile.
“Good morning! I trust you are here for the nine o’clock interview? I never forget a face,” Faith said brightly, snapping a folder from on top of a stack to her left.
“Yes, that would be me,” returning her positivity to the best of my ability. “You know, I would have been even earlier,” I began, accepting the folder with my name on it, trying to make conversation, “but there’s all that mess on Route 1 they just started working on last week. Snails pace—am I right?
Faith looked at me blankly. She didn’t seem to have a clue what I was talking about. It took a moment for her to recover; she must already live in Groton. “Excuse me,” she stammered, motioning down the hall. “Let me take you to the conference room. You can wait in there.” By the time we arrived and I had taken a seat, Faith was again herself. “Can I get you something to drink while you wait?” she chirped. “Soda, water?”
The interview was fairly standard, going over my entire history. I summarized the grueling year of nuke school so many years ago, and played up the technical experience gained while later bobbing along the ocean. The three-person panel seemed pleased with my well-rehearsed answers. This might be it! Most of all, I was happy I would get my foot in the door without some company connection Piper knew—a string pulled. She had kept a watch on openings, but I was determined to make it into Ulster McKnight by my own power.
Ten days later, I received a call with a job offer. The turnaround surprised me, but they could be fast without the need for a security clearance, I was assured. It was a Tuesday. I was told to report to Building 12 on Friday for a day of orientation and a physical I would start the following week.
I was given one rule to follow that Friday. The only instruction I was ever given.
“Knowledge of what you do here, Mr. Carlson, means immediate termination.”
* * * * *
I know two things about my job. I work in Building 4, a nine-story office building comprised of three wings jutting out from a central spine. And I am required to enter Building 4 by 7:50. This was the full extent of what I was told that Friday, before beginning. I don’t know what floor I work on, I don’t know what my desk looks like—if I even have one. I couldn’t tell you a single person I work with. Well, almost no one.
There’s a shout of greeting as I once again approach Building 4 on this clear, cool Monday.
“Morning there! Will Carlson, ready to take on the world once again!” one of two men standing at the door shouts.
“Good morning, Nathan,” I nod. “Nick,” I wave slightly to the other guard. Nathan and Nick are the only two people I know of at Ulster McKnight. They’ve been at their post every day I’ve been here, clad in smart-fitted double-breasted blue blazers, an elegant “UMc” emblem embroidered on the coat pocket. As I near Building 4, I marvel again how much it resembles a high-rise apartment complex, with a long blue awning above the single door and with twin bushes set in stone pots framing the entrance. If someone were to drive past at that moment, nothing would seem odd or out of place. Just a man standing outside a generic building speaking to what could be two doormen. Casually I take a silver card from my wallet and swipe a sleek grey device next to Nathan. There’s a zap and flash.
And then I disappear.
Americans are conflicted about work. That’s my impression, anyway.
Ask outright, and you might get a honey-dripped sermon of whatever their secondary education caught of Puritanism and Manifest Destiny. Filling out a survey about their attitudes on labor, many suddenly have a shovel in their left hands and a jackhammer in their right, with a faraway look in the eyes.
What I am saying is that—officially—Americans go to work.
Yet we dream of leaving work. For the evening, for the weekend. Forever.
I’ll cop to it too.
I’ve left more often than I’ve arrived. It’s true. And every departing is different. Long ago a farewell meant saluting the quarterdeck and then the American flag before traipsing down a gangway. After my duties as a customer specialist of furniture I would take off a cheap name tag and depart throughout an Edwardsville, Illinois showroom of middle class-luxury leather sofas and shabby microfiber recliners aimed at poor people. Ding went the store’s bell. Most often the doors I’ve walked through were made of glass and steel. I put enough pressure on the “push” sign that it gives way.
This is what it’s like enter and exit at Ulster McKnight:
First comes a relentless blast of cold air, like being caught in a wind tunnel that tests the aerodynamics of Suzuki motorcycles, or is used in commercials for Suzuki motorcycles. The skin ripples back and your eyes want to exit through the back of the skull. This is the first part. Next comes a swift buzzing warmth that’s totally enveloping, like tumbling around in the world’s hottest dryer. It’s half natal experience, half instant second-degree sunburn. This the best part, if there is one. Finally, there is a jerking push from behind, much like a neglected amusement ride that throws its riders without care. There are three of these shoves—always—each growing in pressure. Suddenly you’re a cork, popped in consciousness from an always dreamless sleep.
Open your eyes, employee. It’s the end of another day. My watch says 4 pm. I’m again standing under the blue awning, a soft patter hitting its top. It’s lightly raining.
“You have yourself a good one, Mr. Carlson,” Nathan called as he tipped his cap.
My nerves felt raw all the way to Q Lot. I kept my head down most of the way, focusing on the raindrops plinking onto the wet sidewalk. I had only managed a tossed off goodbye to Nathan and Nick. It didn’t seem to matter. Half way to the car I heard footsteps growing louder, and glanced up. A jowly man with an unruly grey beard and large glasses was approaching from the other way. I couldn’t help but stare at his face. Somehow I felt like I should be able to place it, like I have seen him, talked with him. I felt I could guess what his voice sounded like—something like Jim Henson’s, I was sure of it. But I returned to watching my shoes, and the man was soon well past me.
Driving home the traffic was more gummed-up that the morning. That’s right, it suddenly dawned on me. I promised myself I would get something for breakfast. Bagels, perhaps. I’d get out of bed a bit easier for a bagel, I consider as I swing the Audi towards Mystic.
Just my luck: a new coffee shop opened a few weeks ago in Mystic in the center of the village, a few blocks away from home. The rain is still coming down fairly hard, but I decide to walk all the same. I need the exercise, and to clear my head. It hadn’t been a good day at Ulster McKnight—call it a hunch. Enough days had gone by that I could sense that whatever residue I was bringing out with me from Building 4 was wearing on me. I take a route that takes me along the river; the rustic scene of 19th century homes and a three-masted whaling ship in the distance always calms me. On the way, lost in thought, a white Acura splashes a wall of water. An uncomfortable squish accompanies the rest of my steps to the new shop in the corner of Gravel and Main near the town’s magnificent drawbridge. A few lights above a green and yellow striped awning illuminate a wooden sign. The Denison Beanery.
There is no one inside. The rest of Mystic seems to have been scared away by the downpour. Some forgotten Genesis song plays softly, and the place still smells faintly of paint. A girl behind the counter is wrestling with an espresso machine, her ringlets of strawberry curls bouncing side to side in the tussle. Perhaps I’ll pretend to look at the menu for a moment. She turns around a half minute later, pulling back a few lose strands behind her ears. Her green apron does not have a name on it.
“Hi, could I get a plain bagel, and”—deciding to be adventurous—“let’s take a garlic too. To go, please.” Variety is good. As she pulls a sack from below the counter, a clap of thunder urges me to remain a while. “Coffee too, please. For here. Large.”
After paying, I select a table in the corner set off by a framed poster of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and the requisite faded photo of a young Julia Roberts. I take a moment to inspect the glossy. Across the bottom half it says in thick black marker: “So many great memories of Mystic. All the best, Julia, ’88.”
My bag lands on an empty chair; a notebook is found after fumbling with a wet zipper. A story beginning is tried between sips. No words are coming. I’m blocked—complete darkness.
The writing session lasts less than a minute before I find the obscured window more interesting. A firetruck rumbles by, feeling unneeded. A summer tourist family who had driven three hours for river and ocean fun are scampering for cover across the street, angry at the rain. I jot them down as notes, debating whether they are compelling enough to include as story background. Thinking better of it, I grab a fresh sheet.
I then can’t but notice the barista’s quick glance as I take a fuller drink of cooling coffee. It is the third such furtive glance. I shift uncomfortably in my chair. Did I remember to tip? I check the crumpled slip next to me. Yes, I gave a dollar.
Twenty minutes later all I have accomplished toward my next fiction piece are four questioning bullet points:
- Colonial Story! —use family history for inspiration?
- Start in Scotland
- Life is like a bunch of refracted light: a great blinding mess of color offshoots, never to rejoin once spilt apart.
- What is the Point?
The creative try is a scratch. In frustration I scribble a few quick circles whenever my hand wants to go all over the lines. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Just have to get through a full day before I can go another round with this bruising story. Gathering my unhelpful writing pad I don’t look to see if I am watched as I head for the door.
With a bit of a jog through the tapering-off rain I’ve almost reached the porch of our two-story house on Pearl in under five minutes. Crossing the street to make for the shelter, I notice Kellogg running out of his house next door, dressed in only brief navy blue shorts and a white shirt, to collect a water-logged newspaper slumped on the sidewalk.
“Heya neighbor!” Kellogg huffs, squatting in a way that accentuates a low hanging gut, reaching down to swipe the roll of damp pages. “What’s new this beautiful Monday?” After a firm squeeze he holds the ragged paper over his head.
“Nothing much, Handy— I mean, nothing to pass along that would be useful,” I say, with honest apology. “Just went to check out the new shop, Denison’s.” I shout, racing up the porch steps then lingering at the door. “Might make it a regular thing. You know, the writing.” I shrug.
“Oh, that’s right,” Kellogg replies, now drenched but going nowhere. “Will Carlson, the author. Ha! Well, best of luck in telling the story your supposed to.”
The short story I been pulling along for months, “Shell Games,” has Piper stumped too, but she doesn’t have the energy to brainstorm plot or character motivation with me tonight. Neither of us is in the mood to rehash my complaint again that I wished for more time, a brief letup of domestic responsibilities to get my writing done. But laundry, dishes, and bill paying will keep me from drafting a single paragraph. I needlessly stomp around the house with little reason, just to show the cups and cutlery that they displease me.
Piper meanwhile tired enough to not really notice my simmering, has left her own silver Ulster McKnight card laying out loose on the counter. The microwave is cooking tonight. “Thanks, can’t forget a thing like that,” she sighs, slipping it into her purse. Forty minutes into watching a gloriously horrible movie, Samurai Cop, that plays as we ate dinner, I look over at Piper. Out cold. She’s missed the best-worst parts, curled up in a tight ball, fortified by the couch and a heavy blanket. I turn off the lights and head to the bedroom.
The back of the bottom drawer of the dresser is rooted through until I grasp a leather journal under some khakis. It’s not exactly a secret that I have it; Piper knows it’s there, and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. But she is the only one I’ve told. It’s a mood journal. Specifically, it is a record of how I feel when I leave work, when I am spit back out of Building 4 five days a week.
I sit down on the edge of the bed and begin to thumb through the previous weeks. The pages are divided into a first half of scrawled notes with a corresponding date. Usually no more than three or four lines. After all, they are impressions, feelings, with nothing solid to ever go on. The back section charts the general mood in five corresponding colors laid out over a makeshift calendar. The chart seems to suggest that there is a pattern to my moods. For three or four weeks I’m feeling pretty good at the end of a shift. And then for roughly a week, I become irritable. Yet I seem to have grown especially depressed over the last month. Why?
I turn back to the beginning and I pause on August 10th, which is the fifth entry:
“Came out from the memory hole today feeling freer than I have in two weeks. A weight lifted from my shoulders. I couldn’t wait to get to the car and blast the radio with the windows rolled down. It feels like a personal success.”
The next entry the journal falls open to is September 6th.
“Intensely angry as soon as I reappear out of Building 4. Yelled at Nathan to shut the hell up. Happened before I knew what I was saying. I think I was more surprised than he was. Nathan and Nick were almost expecting it, like it’s been happening to them a lot recently. I looked across the street and someone in business causal like me was storming across the street like he didn’t care if a car hit him. So I couldn’t have been the only one. But everything is fine with Piper and all that. My foul mood has been pretty unshakable all night, but I don’t know why. Third night in a row.”
Tonight I added this:
“Very irritated upon reentry from 4 again. Hoping getting some exercising and bike riding over the weekend would help. Doesn’t seem to have had any effect. Nothing much new to add that has not already been stated at length during the previous week. Only that it seems to be getting slowly worse. Piper too was on her last legs tonight. As I’ve grown more distracted and upset she had become more tired. She seems to be having the worst of it.”
Tuesday morning arrives dark and gloomy. If anything, the rain has increased, falling in heavy sleets. Few bites of garlic bagel are washed down absent-mindedly with water, the coffee pot empty. Piper is still in the shower when I walk out the door even earlier than usual. I forget to say goodbye, I realize, until I am climbing the western bluffs that bracket Mystic and out of town.
With the storm washing out a day of roadwork, the crews are absent this morning. Where do they go when not on the job? It seems that the construction worker with the white hardhat is outside of existence, perhaps passing through his own vortex, by not manning his usual highway post.
As best as I can see, only two spaces are left in Q Lot; I realize quickly though that one is halfway taken up by a diagonal Jeep Cherokee plastered with a dozen bumper stickers. I pull into the open one remaining without looking any further. Everyone must have had the idea to arrive early and get a spot as close to the Ulster McKnight campus as possible.
I may not know any of these dozens of other employees for Ulster McKnight, but I have come to know the cars that sit everyday waiting for their owners. A silver Nissan Sentra with two child seats and a littering of wet naps on the floor is next to me this morning. It has a Connecticut license plate, like nearly all here do, but I take notice of the Southern Illinois University sticker in the rear window. Pulling my jacket’s collar up I make for Building 4, but keep an eye on whatever details I decipher about other cars along the lengthy rows. A hulking white Dodge Ram with mud behind its massive wheels that’s on my left has two small decals: a sticker promising “Submariners Do It Deeper,” the other a Bible verse. A retired officer, says the vanity frame around Florida plates. The car I always take an interest in is an ostentatious ink-blank Cadillac Ceil, a low-riding luxury tank partially armored in mirrored chrome. It’s in the same spot every day, right at the entrance to Q Lot; I feel like I know every inch of the foreboding machine.
Rematerializing from the violent, vibrating tunnel hours later at 4 pm sharp under the awning, I take a moment to collect myself. More for the mood journal. I sigh. Raining still. Looking over to Nick, he’s huddled under an edge of damp blue awning, trying to keep warm while not appearing to care.
“This supposed to keep going?” I motion to the dense grey skies and faraway rumbles. Nathan just cocks his head a bit to the side.
“I heard the weatherman on the radio say today was beach weather,” he laments slowly. Nick seconds that he heard the same thing. “Some things are just beyond our knowing, I guess.”
* * * * *
Two white vans were impossible to miss once my Audi swings down Pearl Street. They were parked directly in front of the house. I slow at the sight, and carefully make a turn in the driveway, checking out the vans and their wide-open side doors. A lot of gear is inside, but I can’t make out what. The side panel is adorned with a bright blue logo. Ulster McKnight.
“Piper?” I call at wide open door. I don’t get a response but I hear movement from inside. “Anyone here?” I have my phone at the ready, ready to dial Piper, when she suddenly appears from the bedroom. She has already changed into the casual clothes— having chosen an slouchy emerald (t-shirt?) tonight—that she slips into every evening after work. Beat me home again.
“So, what’s up with bringing work home with you?” I ask, throwing a hand at the window and the two vans parked outside. She smiles and takes me by the hand. We walk together through the dining room and kitchen, and out the back stoop.
“Does that answer your question?” she says, turning back to me. I’m amazed. Three men and a woman are busying themselves in the backyard. The largest is running a mower up the steep incline to the back of the yard, the lawn looking half cut. The smell of the grass then hits my nose. The youngest, probably a teen, is hunting for weeds in the garden on the far right side along the fence. And the two others are finally repairing a section of fence that has become warped and has fallen to pieces since the spring.
“Did you—” I begin, trying to understand.
“Let them in?” Piper tries to fill in my thought. “Yeah, I did. They got there here about half an hour ago, saying they were here to take care of a few things. Thought that was better than just having them wait around outside.”
“Right, outside. . . .” I ponder, nodding.
“Well, the outside is just part of what they do. “After this they’re going to take a look at the washer—and do some quick dusting and vacuuming,” Piper lists off her head, pausing to make sure that’s it. I look out at the busy scene again. They’re fast.
“I haven’t signed for the order yet,” she says, remembering that part, and disappearing quickly into the kitchen. I follow, just listening. “They said—the head guy’s name is Jerry, if you want to talk to him. They can come tomorrow, or the next day too. Whenever. And they don’t need a tip, and—”
“Go back a second,” I ask, taking a Beatles glass from the cupboard and turning the faucet, checking with a finger first that it’s running cold. “Order? I placed an order?”
“Don’t feel bad about it—it’s a free service! I didn’t know that part. We could have been doing this the whole time. Oh well.”
“Still, I don’t remember placing an order for all this.”
“You’ve been walking around here for weeks talking how you’d like more help around the house, haven’t you? Perhaps the “Work You” filled out a form,” Piper says nonchalantly as she picks up her phone to scroll through messages. “How are we to know, right?” She is taking this all very well, I realize. Actually, this is the most content I’ve seen her in a while. I let it drop that I must have filed something at Building 4, at some point.
Small crowd at Denison Beanery tonight. A few tables of young people busy themselves on closely held glowing screens, while across the room three older men are chatting about the best remedy for a flooded basement. The store is dense with an earthy, slightly sweet aroma.
“—nah, you won’t need a wet-dry vac if it’s only an inch. What you gotta do is—” the thinnest man in the group instructs with a short chop of his hand. The vacuum lobbyist looks incredulous. The three lean back in their chairs like they have been there all afternoon, but their breathing is a bit ragged as if they just arrived. One wipes his brow lightly with a blue—and-white-checked handkerchief.
I leave them to their debate and take in the wider store again. Denison seems to be mimicking shades of a 1920s speakeasy. The walls are a rich evergreen and every surface is made of either a dark-stained wood or polished brass. Beatles posters and framed photographs of old jazz masters fill all four sides. Four evenly spaced fans lazily turn above from the molded ceiling. It’s perfect.
Yes, Piper was right again, I concede with a brush of excess rain from my shoulders, flashing back to being shewed out the door minutes before. “Go! Get out of here, and spend the night dreaming up your historical story,” she had commanded, tossing my notebook. Yes, she was right. I needed this. Ulster McKnight feels fittingly hazy here, like Building 4 resides in a far distant state. In fact, I feel lighter just for arriving, at home in this quaint establishment with my second visit.
There’s a short line made of a local couple, who decided to stop in during an evening walk, by the look of them. They hem and haw about the chalkboard menu on the wall and the grapes that come in the chicken salad. Hm, I hope they don’t take my table by the window from last night; no, still free. Last night—up to the this point I had forgotten all about the girl with strawberry curls that had seemed to steal a few glances at me a day ago. I turn back to the counter. The indecisive couple is placing a detailed order for two garden wraps to a patient older man with a round red face and tired stands of glossy black hair swept back with the aid some kind of tonic. His small lips purse at the third special consideration the male customer suggests about the kind and amount of lettuce his meal will have, but compliantly writes this down too.
I head for the table by the window, reminding myself to order something small later, as a rental fee for the work space, but soon I forget this too as the table fills with notes and paragraphs to be stitched together into a short story. But the pieces are being obstinate, not wanting to be joined together in much of anything that makes sense. So much time has been spent getting so little done, I think with a rueful laugh at all the nothing I’ve so far accomplished. That could be the best thesis of the whole work: to-do lists are the funniest kinds of cosmic jokes.
A full five minutes are devoted to this meat-ball surgery upon my grand pile of literature before I’m distracted yet again. Perhaps it’s finally the lack of sound coming from outside. The rain has finally stopped to be replaced by chirps and a few hesitant rays of sunlight. Right, that clinches it—let’s celebrate with a break. A picked-over New York Times is on the next table.
My first instinct is to flip to the back pages and the opinion writing, but the citizen in me scolds that I should check out the front page first. Above the fold is a wide color photograph of a Middle Eastern city, its dusty, empty commercial district in ruins, thick black smoke pouring out of a few large craters and burning cars. A woman is on her knees, hunching with her arms thrown to the sky. Her face is anguish. I scan the story, if only to have a good reason to look away from the devastation. The report dryly accounts an unconfirmed attack the previous day upon the city of Mosul, the Islamic State-held provincial capital of Nineveh in northern Iraq.
“…while it is confirmed the assault was mounted by Kurdish fighters, it is still unknown what airpower the United States provided. Several accounts describe devastatingly high-powered missile-like weapons appearing almost out of nowhere, just above the low city skyline. The State Department and the Defense Department has thus commented on the operation to say only that the opposition forces will be provided with resources sufficient to defeat…”
Perhaps it was that sad but necessary reminder of relativity, that my problems weren’t that bad after all, that helped focus me on my writing soon after. Knocked out two pages of a beginning, about an impetuous Scottish prince. I sigh with relief. The hardest part is over—the beginning.
Maybe Piper would even give at a read through, I think optimistically. Let’s see. . . . if I wrote just two pages like this a night—completely doable, I’m suddenly sure— this story could be finished by November. Right, it’s a plan then.
I’m pleased, feeling the work was already done, somehow already written and laying there for me to collect. This rewinds my mind back to what the Handyman said yesterday evening, standing in the middle of a downpour, “Will Carlson: author.” He had wished me well. “Write what you know,” Kellogg offered at the end: what every freshman English major is implored to do. But, now that I think back, did his words have an edge to them?
“Say there son, mind if I ask you a question?” I’m shaken back to my table at Denisons. I first notice that the group of older men have left—or at least two of them have. The third, I look up and to my left, is standing a few feet away, looking right at me.
“That all right with you?” he asks again.
“Well, I noticed you had the paper out and were writing a bunch of things. Thought you might be job hunting too.” he explained, raising his right hand a bit, showing a folded classified section, a few circled in blue ink. “Hard to find much of anything these days, that don’t involve some damn computer, anyway,” he says dispiritedly. His words make me thankful yet again for Ulster McKnight, that I had lassoed onto a company that was growing and—and much as I could tell—doing great things. I studied his face: it had once been quite noble, and really still was: sun-damage and heavy ruts under the eyes gave him a weary yet knowing expression.
“Sorry, looking at the Times, actually,” I answer, holding up the front page for him to inspect. “I think I saw a Groton Herald over by the sugars that—“
“Horrible thing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I was out of work for months, when I move here.” He waves away my comment.
“No, I mean the attack in Mosul. Saw it earlier. We were discussing it with my coffee group—horrible stuff.”
“Terrible.” His thin legs look unsure; I invite him to sit.
“Still, I guess it’s for some good. Must be done,” he throws out, probably to gauge where I stood on it. A slight affirmative nod is given in reply, to be polite. Now that I have a moment, I give face a second look. I feel as if I’ve sat in front of him before, as if I should know his name. Another one, like so many instances these past months. As I wonder about faces, considering how often I’ve been mistaken for someone else in the past—“You look just like our son!” a couple visiting D.C. once said emphatically, sitting behind me during venture aboard a Greyhound bus being one example—the man continues talking about his philosophies on the Middle East; they seem to be a partially considered ramble of cable news chatter. I let him talk, not interrupting.
“. . . . either that, or they find their way over here. And we can’t have that,” he affirms, the hand still holding his newspaper trembling a bit.
“And, who knows? Maybe aliens are on our side now too!” he laughs roughly, drawing a long finger towards the front page before me again.
“Excuse me?” The truth was I had only been half listening by the end of his global tactical debrief.
“This new weapon, or whatever it is—says it’s invisible—and then there: “Bam!” he says with the excitement of a kid with a new toy, clapping his hands together to simulate impact. “And to think, when I was born, that stuff only existed in Tales of the Amazing comics books,” he says wistfully. “I always wanted a ray gun—a real one. Asked for one as a Christmas present once,” the man hacked a chuckle at the memory. “I’ll never forget what my father told me. He said, ‘Clarence, you get a job, and I’ll help you get a ray gun.’ That’s what he said—I can still see it! Well sir, I got that job: a morning paper route around the neighborhood. But you know what? . . . . No ray gun!” Clarence is beside himself with the story, wheezing with delight at his father’s decades-ago chicanery.
And then Clarence returns back to the present year, and to me sitting across from him.
“What do you suppose it is?” he asks a bit conspiratorially, as it there might be spies drinking lattes all around us. “You think they finally made that ray gun, some kind of new super weapon straight from a comic book?” The hand gripping the newspaper is steady, and he’s looking intently at me.
(Part II to follow)