Just after noon, Skip pulled over at a Sheetz gas station outside of Ashland, Kentucky and called his wife, Becky, just to check in.
She’d told him this morning when he’d left the Holiday Inn Express in Indianapolis that she planned to be out back of their house in Sacramento working on the yard.
The phone rang and rang, then went to voicemail. He hung up and dialed again.
Over the last couple of years, Becky had become a Master Gardener. She’d taken endless courses on horticulture, conscientious landscaping, flower and tree pairing and eco-friendly ornamental gardening.
All of it sounded like nonsense to Skip, who was obliged to pay for his wife’s hobby.
He really shouldn’t complain, and he never did to her. His wife was a peach.
Becky had supported them both as a high school art teacher in the early days, back when he was just a promising young soldier in the Army. After the army and he’d settled into his career, Becky quit teaching and managed their home.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Skip was often away, working in Central America, Asia and even in the former Soviet Union, before they stopped buying American.
He was a good provider, but an absentee father, but Becky raised their three boys for them, made sure they did their homework, and that they were kept clean and God-fearing.
They’d turned out all right. Stu was a senior at Yale. Tad was a sophomore at Cornell and Bub started Columbia, just this semester.
Tuition for the three was astronomical.
Skip had hoped they might have settled on the same school, which would have saved him money on housing. He could have rented them a townhouse or an apartment to share; buying such a place outright would have probably been a good investment, too.
But each lad wanted to strike out on his own. They felt stifled and claustrophobic growing up as they did in their modest 6800 square foot home.
Skip thought his boys were bright young men, but not too bright. They’d figured out the deal with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny early but hadn’t guessed that their fine educations and comfortable lives were not paid for by pharmaceutical sales.
Money had never been a problem for the McAllister family, not since he and Becky had been newlyweds, but lately, Skip felt the strain.
He blamed the internet.
At first, Skip thought it was a good thing. Suddenly, there was so much information available. He was able to reconnect with old friends, make new clients and network for more work.
Discretion was key.
Then came Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and an endless stream of ever-emerging social media. People vomited personal information. They wrote outrageous things for others to read, things they’d probably never say to a friend while sober –and oh, the pictures.
Cell phones made everyone a private detective looking into parked cars and back alley windows.
Nothing was sacred. Nothing was private.
Rocks were kicked over. Closets, bedrooms and basements were open wide. It was a decade of humiliation, as every stupid mistake, every poor decision and every unfortunate incident was recorded and shared with millions.
Much as things like Netflix and Hulu cut into the cable television business and its advertising revenue, the regular sharing of every bad, dumb thing on social media cut into his industries’ ability to blackmail and extort.
The people who could be embarrassed out of an office, were chased off early, leaving either very chaste (and somewhat dull) people running things or scum made nearly invincible by their own venality.
You couldn’t even threaten the lives of such a person’s family or friends because their family and friends were only window-dressing, just replaceable stock actors, who happened to have some convenient relation.
The inability to coerce should have led to more contract killings, but when everyone thinks the worst of almost everyone, particularly elected officials, bureaucrats and heads of industry, murder is the always first thought everybody thinks of when something unfortunate happens, even if it’s perfectly, utterly explainable and seemingly undetectable.
What remained was mostly public relations –spinning yarns and selling soap, as Skip liked to call it. They used the internet, created “craft hate campaigns” and “holistic boutique persuasion platforms.” They managed strange threads on Reddit and paid their friends to denounce targets at jam band concerts.
These kinds of jobs didn’t need someone to pull a trigger; just someone who was good at building websites and drinking overpriced, cold coffee.
There were only a few old-school “fixers” like Skip still left around. Most of the Skip’s best friends and colleagues in the business had just gotten out, taken desk jobs at shady NGOs or given up their souls and gone to work for pimply-faced dot-com entrepreneurs who wanted a scary babysitter around to watch the kids as they fixed bugs and developed apps.
Skip wasn’t ready for that, at least not yet. He still had his pride, his reputation and a good work ethic. He would manage.
On the fourth call, Becky picked up and said, “Hello, sweetheart. How’s the drive?”
“Indiana was bland, as usual, but I stopped in Kentucky for a late breakfast at the place we looked at online,” he said.
“You don’t sound happy.”
“It was fine,” he told her. “I arrived too late for the ramps or for the paw paws; damnable luck, I suppose. The waitress was very nice about it after I explained that I was looking to explore some of the regional cuisine. She went and talked to the owner about making me a special apple dumpling.”
“For breakfast? That would be too much, darling. The doctor wants you to lose weight, not gain and don’t forget your cholesterol.”
Skip nodded as he listened and decided that he would not tell his wife that he’d had the French toast instead.
“I know,” he said. “As it happened, the owner was too busy to facilitate the request and suggested I might come back some other time. I plan to stop on my way back.” Skip took a breath and asked, “How are things on the home front?”
“Good, very good,” she said. “I’ve got some landscapers helping me put in some ornamental cherry trees.”
“I thought we already had ornamental cherry trees,” he replied.
Breezily, Becky said, “Oh, we do. This variety produces blossoms that are a different shade of pink. They are subtly darker and slightly smaller, too. You’ll love them.”
“I’m sure I will,” Skip said, though he sincerely doubted it. The current cherry trees aggravated his sinuses.
“Is anything else going on?” he asked. “How are the boys?”
The boys did not phone Skip. They did not send texts. They had not friended him on Facebook.
“Very well,” his wife told him. “Tad is considering changing his major. He says he’s really becoming interested in theater and might like to pursue that for a while.”
Skip felt like he’d been slapped.
“Cornell is a business school. Why the devil would he want to do something like that?”
“That’s another thing,” Becky said. “He’s considering transferring to a school in London, which I can’t say I’m in complete agreement about. There are plenty of very fine theatrical schools here in the states.”
Skip’s head began to throb; his blood pressure.
“I think this might have to do with the girl he’s been seeing,” his wife told him. “She’s an actress and just came off a touring production of ‘Avenue Q.’ Do you know that one? They use puppets.”
“She’s a puppeteer?” Skip felt like he might need to lie down somewhere, maybe in the grass.
“You know, I don’t know,” Becky said. “I’ll call and find out.”
“Anyway,” she said. “I think he wants to go to school in London because the girl, the actress, is English. I think she’s only in Ithaca until about Christmas and then she goes home. Don’t be mad. The boy thinks he’s in love.”
Skip put his free hand to his face and asked, “Is there anything else?”
“Just the one thing,” Becky said, hesitantly. “Honestly, I was going to wait until you got home, but…”
Skip stared out at the highway and the cars rushing by. Something inside of him said whatever was coming next might make him want to sprint into traffic.
“What is it?”
“Stu came home, this morning,” she answered brightly. “He’s decided that he doesn’t need to graduate and wants to go ahead and get started. He wants to try a job as a pharmaceutical rep –you know, like his father.”
Becky was well aware that her husband was not actually employed by the drug companies –at least, not as a someone shilling the latest anti-depressant or treatment for shingles.
“What has he done?” Skip asked.
“Well, working with pharma, as it turns out –the independent variety,” Becky said, cheerily. “The school declined to press charges after we made a sizeable donation to some memorial fund or another, but they feel Stu would be better served finishing his degree elsewhere.
“They said we should send someone to collect Stu’s things –not Stu. He’s no longer allowed on campus.”
Tuition for the year, along with room and board, was probably forfeited, but at least now Stu understood why a 22-year-old wanted to live among 18-year-olds in a modest cell.
With his head throbbing and his chest tight as spring, he calmly said, “I will speak with him when I return home. Maybe we can find him another college where he can finish up his degree.”
“He didn’t sound interested in returning to school,” Becky told him, tentatively.
“I will be persuasive,” he said and began fumbling through his pockets for his anything, anything really. He found a container of tic tacs.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?”
He wasn’t. She knew he wasn’t, but she had to ask, and he had to lie about it.
“Of course, just some setbacks for us. Everyone has them. Everything will be fine.”
Neither of them said anything for a few seconds. There wasn’t much else to say.
Becky sighed. “I suppose I should get back to the landscaping. Call after you get to Charleston. You said you’d stop there for lunch?”
“Yes, there’s a little farm to table place I read about online,” he said. “I think I’ll stop there for dinner. Breakfast was late. I’ll probably just grab a salad or something light and then eat more, later.”
“Is a salad going to be enough?” She asked.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Besides, I want to try the blueberry buttermilk pie at that place in Charleston. I hear it’s pretty good.”
Considering the day he was having, it had better be.
“Take it easy today, right? Everything is going to work itself out. Don’t you worry.”
Skip let out long and comforting sigh. “Of course, it will. Talk to you soon, sweetheart. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He waited until she hung up, then Skip marched into the gas station and bought two chili cheese dogs, an order of jalapeno poppers and a bottle of Ale-8-one.
It was local.