Awful People A One Month At A Time NaNoWriMo Challenge

11

Skip had the blueberry buttermilk pie at the quaint liberal farm to table place, but really didn’t taste much of it. This was not the fault of the baker or the owner, who ambled about the dining room in a pair of overalls saying hello to regulars and people she knew.

Really, he found the place charming and a reminder that while conservatives were great at things like building fast food empires and soft drink companies, they were terrible at coming up with charming restaurants that you’d want to spend more than 10 minutes in.

Of course, on paper this place would sound like a risk with its mismatched furniture, bohemian servers, eccentric local art and bizarre music choices for the dining room.

While Skip tucked into his fish and chips, the restaurant had been tuned to a bluegrass channel which was playing an entire hour of rock n’ roll covers. It was the sort of thing Skip would only gladly listen to if he was being tortured by Central American revolutionaries –not that he was really paying attention.

He didn’t really enjoy the fish or his pie, which he was sure were both excellent. Skip just didn’t have an appetite. He felt nauseous and tense all the way from his navel up to his neck. The only taste he had in his mouth was bitter bile.

It was a monster of an assignment. Skip had been tasked with destroying 12 different people. These were supposed to represent the next wave of conservative Republicans in the state of West Virginia. They were good, clean people; decent, god-fearing and hard-working: the kind of people who could get rightward leaning Democrats (something that only seemed to exist in places like West Virginia) to vote for them, based in principles and values.

These were the kind of people Skip would vote for, the kind of people whose cheap, paper and wire signs he’d plant in his yard, because they represented the best, possible hope for this country.

And Skip needed to kill or somehow disable all 12 inside the next year and a half.

He was heartsick.

Skip called Betty to talk about it. He used the burner phone that called her burner phone because what was being asked of him was obscene and he needed to have a frank discussion, but she couldn’t talk. Stu was in jail.

“A complete misunderstanding,” his wife said, cheerily. “You’ll remember that I told you that Stu had moved home, this morning.”

How could he forget? That had set off his monstrous case of indigestion, which was then aided by a couple of gas station chili dogs.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Just a misunderstanding,” she repeated. “As soon as he got a few things settled in the house, Stu went out for a bit. He said he was going to go see some old friends from high school.”

“But Stu went to boarding school in Massachusetts,” Skip said. “None of his friends from school…”

“I thought it was rather strange, too, but I was busy with the backyard and the cherry trees. Those turned out wonderfully, by the way.”

Betty was stalling.

“What happened?”

“Well, Stu says he went to see this old friend about some money that was owed, and they got into a bit of an argument,” she explained. “The sum was considerable, Stu says.”

“What happened?” He said again, his voice becoming gruff.

“Please calm down,” Betty said. “It’s all taken care of. I got him out. I paid the bail from the household petty cash fund, which I’m afraid is depleted.”

There was 20,000 dollars in that fund. It was supposed to be used in case they needed to book plane flights immediately or bribe a policeman.

“Betty, for the love of Ronald Reagan, what did our son do?”

His wife sighed and said, “He stole a car and then almost ran over the owner as he was attempting to leave, but Stu says the owner of the car owes him $10,000 and he was only taking it as collateral. Stu said he wasn’t actually trying to hit the friend, just scare him a little. He didn’t mean to take out the mailbox and the dog.”

“He took out a dog?”

“Well, no. He took out the mailbox and killed the dog. Oh, yes,” Betty added brightly. She wasn’t used to using industry slang in casual conversation. “Yes, Stu did take out the dog, which was apparently a pure bred Snitzerdoodle or something.

“I’m a plant person. I don’t know much about animals.”

Skip let out a long, pained sigh. His eyeballs hurt.

“What are the charges?”

“Well, right now, it’s just the grand theft auto and reckless endangerment,” she said. “Stu said he thought he could talk his friend into declining to press charges about the car and the reckless endangerment, given the nature of the debt, but it would probably cost another 20 thousand dollars to make sure that the friend didn’t talk to the members of his club about the situation.”

“Club,” Skip said wearily. “I think you mean gang.”

“Well, no. Officially, they’re members of a motorcycle club,” she said. “Stu said there’s a lot of confusion about that. Motorcycle clubs are often labeled as gangs by the Federal authorities, but that doesn’t mean they’re what the government says they are. He says that normally, they’re just a bunch of guys who like to ride around on their motorbikes and throw parties on the weekend.”

They also occasionally run guns, drugs or protection rackets. They kill people, too.

“So, I’m glad you called,” Betty said. “I need to come up with $20,000 in the next 48 hours or we might be in a bit of a pickle.”

Stu would be in a pickle, at least, Skip thought.

“If Stu can get the man to drop the charges, we should get most of the $20,000 back. Maybe he’d take $15,000?”

Betty gasped. “You would have me haggle over the life of our oldest son?”

Actually, yes. Skip wasn’t sure where the $20,000 would come from. Actual cash reserves were low. The rest of their wealth was tied up in properties difficult to liquidate in just a day or so.

He pulled the phone away from his face, groaned miserably and said, “Have Stu talk to his friend. Get a commitment to wait a week until the money from the bond is released back to you. I can make up whatever difference.”

“Will that be OK?” She asked.

Skip had no idea, but it was worth a try.

“I’m certain Stu’s friend is reasonable. What’s the man’s name?”

“Warthog.”

Skip rolled his eyes.

“I’m sure Mr. Warthog will be OK with the arrangement.”

Betty, sounding slightly less cheery, said, “Are you sure?”

No, he wasn’t sure, but Stu was a big boy –a dumb, big boy, but a big boy, nonetheless. If he couldn’t straighten this much out on his own, then maybe Skip would let him take the charges. Skip would work something out later, of course, but maybe the terror of the possibility of having to spend the remainder of his 20s in a California prison would shake some sense into him.

“I think it will be OK,” he told his wife.

“Alright, then.” She sounded relieved. “I’ll see to things here.” Then, she seemed to suddenly remember that she wasn’t talking to her husband on his iPhone but using a cheap flip phone purchased from a gas station.

“Are you alright, dear?”

Skip took a deep breath. No, he was not alright. In the few days since he’d left home, his entire household had gone to hell in a handbasket. He didn’t feel particularly well, and he didn’t like the assignment he’d been offered, though it sounded like he didn’t have much choice about whether he’d accept it or not.

“Just some work stress,” he said. “The new job will pay well, but it could mean I’m going to be away from home a bit. It is a big job.”

Big and heartbreaking.

“But the contract is satisfactory?” She asked.

“We’re dealing with a Democrat,” he told her. “They throw money at everything to make it better. If I do this, we should be set for quite a while.”

“But that’s the only problem, you might have to spend some additional time away from home, maybe stay in West Virginia for a while?”

He sagged in his suit.

“That’s about the sum of it.”

“Is it really so bad there?”

Skip looked around. He was parked outside a dog park, where a couple of Labradors were chasing each other in the mud, while their respective owners flirted beneath the shelter. The rain was really coming down now, but he could still see the gold dome of the capitol. The whole place looked gloomy and depressing.

“It’s nice,” he said.

“Maybe I could come out and join you for a bit,” she said.

But that would also require her to know more about what he’d been tasked to do than he wanted to tell her.

“Maybe,” he said. “You could come and make it into a mini-vacay, stay a week or so. And really, I guess, I won’t be here that much. I can do a lot of preparation and planning at home. I’m sorry I worried you with this.”

“You just needed to talk it through,” Becky said. “Everything will be fine.”

He agreed with her for the sake of brevity. They said good-bye for now. Skip tossed his phone into a nearby garbage can, then he popped the last of his Rolaids into his mouth.

 

10 (picking back up)

Rose looked up and saw Ryan Seacrest, grinning, and coming through the front door with a pizza box in his hands.

Thinking back, she imagined this was the first and maybe only time she’d ever been glad to see him.

Outside, it was really coming down. The rain started about an hour ago and hadn’t let up, which was fine with her. Traffic in and out of the store had slowed to a crawl. People were staying in or else, not bothering to chase across the lot from the shelter above the gas pumps to get food or beer inside the Shopaminit.

At the moment, it was just her out front and some tubby, middle-aged woman in back, working the poker machines.

That seemed to be about the right speed for a rainy Saturday evening.

It could rain all night, for all she cared. All Rose wanted to do was eat her pizza, get through the next couple of hours as agreed upon and then go home and put her feet up for a few hours. Then she planned to start putting in applications online.

There was a 50-50 chance that tomorrow Matt would fire her right out. She’d thwarted Margie’s dream getaway weekend of a time-share condo pitch followed by knick-knacks at Tamarack.

“Knick-Knack, Tamarack, give the dog a bone,” she giggled to herself. “Who came up with that? Tamarack?”

“Sorry?” Ryan asked, as he put the pizza box on the counter.

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “I was just thinking about Matt and Margie in Pigeon Forge.”

“The timeshare thing,” he said and nodded.

Rose didn’t remember if she’d mentioned to him or if he was somehow wired into the comings and goings of her employer. It hardly mattered.

“Matt’s pretty pissed at me,” she said. “We’re short-staffed. I wasn’t supposed to be in today or tomorrow, but now I’m pulling a double and opening in the morning. I told Matt I wasn’t staying past 7 and that he needed to be back by noon tomorrow or I was going to shut the pumps off and lock the doors.”

“You didn’t.”

“I did,” she said and opened the box. It smelled amazing and was technically the first real food Rose had eaten all day. The baby would be thrilled.

She took a slice and said, “I shouldn’t have to do this in my condition. I’m seven months pregnant. This can’t be good for the baby.”

The meat-lover’s pizza was gooey and hot. She took a bite, then put it down and reached for her most recent Monster Energy drink to cool her scalded mouth. This was either number three or number four. She hadn’t really been paying attention.

“Matt should have started back the second I told him about Greg.”

Greg had nearly lopped his own foot off mowing his yard.

“That would have been responsible,” she told Ryan. “He owns the place. I don’t. This is his business, not mine. I swear if I wasn’t pregnant and didn’t need the health insurance, I’d have told him what for and he and Margie could just.”

“He’s not going to fire you,” Ryan said and helped himself to a slice. “You’re the best thing about this place. You’re what keeps it going. There would be no Shopaminit without you.”

Rose watched him take a bite and thought, “Slow down, joker. You don’t have to lay it on so thick.”

“I don’t really expect him to cut me loose tomorrow,” she said. “I figure he’ll come in, give me a good talking to and try to make me think that’s all there is. He’ll drop me in a couple of weeks, after Greg is back and he hires a couple of more people. He’ll get me to train them and then fire me.”

“That sounds harsh,” Ryan told her. “I really don’t think Matt would do that. How would it look if he fired a pregnant person?”

She shrugged and worked on her pizza.

“Thanks for the food,” she said.

Ryan smiled and said, “Glad to do it. Being a manager has its perks, right?”

Rose nodded and told him to help himself to a coffee or a fountain drink.

“Thank-you. I will,” he said and practically strutted over to the beverage island, which was looking a little like it had been hit by a tsunami.

Rose hadn’t cleaned all day.

He returned with a big cup of something, and they ate in silence for a few minutes before Ryan got around to what the pizza was about.

“This is nice,” he said. “I know I come in here all the time, but I think this is the first time we’ve really just talked, you know?”

Rose nodded, though as far as she could tell they’d discussed nothing more personal than the stuff they usually talked about –their jobs and Rose being pregnant.

But he’d been nice enough to bring over a pizza. It was good pizza, better than the frozen stuff she kept in her house. She supposed that entitled Ryan to something like companionship and light dinner conversation.

“We could do this elsewhere sometime,” he suggested. “We could drive up to Hawk’s Nest. With the leaves turning, it’s pretty this time of the year. We could stop in Glen Ferris, at the falls and look around. I know a pretty good place for cheeseburgers. We could have lunch or maybe an early dinner.”

Rose’s eyes narrowed.

“Why?” She asked.

“What do you mean why?” he said. “I think you’re awesome. I want to get to know you.” He motioned to the room around them. “You know, beyond this box. I think if we spent some time together, well, who knows?”

A dozen different rebuttals to Ryan’s proposal came to mind.

First of all, she didn’t really like him. He seemed tainted, like lunch meat left out on a kitchen counter for too long. He had a greasy look to him, which, in all fairness, might come from where he worked or was maybe a side effect of just having an unattractive mustache.

Rose didn’t think much of men with mustaches. The last man to really pull off a good mustache had been the actor Sam Elliott, who tended to play a lot of cowboys.

Ryan didn’t look like much of a cowboy. He looked like the kind of man who hung out in laundromats to watch women’s underwear go around and around in the window of the dryer.

Ryan also had a swagger in his walk that suggested he was a half-priced can of poop.

Rose appreciated confidence, but there was a difference between confidence and sort of pathological cocksureness. Ryan had an air that suggested he believed everything belonged to him, everything, and that he was only allowing the rest of the world to borrow his toys until wanted them.

Entitled is what he acted like.

Secondly, she didn’t enjoy spending time with Ryan. Aside from his borderline stalking behavior, their interactions all seemed dirty, like he was talking to her on two different frequencies.

She imagined an afternoon riding around with Ryan would feel like being pleasantly waterboarded. He’d deliver everything he promised, but still manage to make it seem cheap and gross.

Thirdly, he smelled weird, like Aqua Velva mixed with the water from a jar of pickled pigs’ feet. Rose allowed that could be some sort of medical condition or maybe a result of eating so many peanuts and peanut products, but it also just might be the stench emanating from the man’s rotten soul.

There was more, a lot more, but she really liked this pizza. Rose wondered if she could turn this into a semi-regular thing, getting him to buy her dinner with no real expectations for love or sex. That sounded pretty good to her, so she told him, “Ryan, that sounds wonderful, but you know, I just got out of a really bad, long-term relationship that left me pretty screwed up.”

She pointed at her swollen belly.

“Don’t rush me,” she told him. “Give me some time to think about it.”

That seemed good enough for the creepy Pizza Hut manager, who just smiled and told her, “Of course. I totally understand. No pressure.”

Perfect, Rose thought and continued to eat.

“I better get going,” Ryan said. “I’ll leave the pizza with you.”

“Thanks for the food,” she said.

“Thanks for the company.”

He started toward the door and a short, black kid came into the store dripping, drenched to the bone.

Ryan stopped and looked him over.

“Drew?”

9 (Nov. 9)

National Weather Service

 

The hazardous weather outlook is for areas of northwestern, central and southeastern West Virginia. A bank of fast-moving storms is moving through the area, this afternoon into late tonight.

Locally, modern to heavy rain will continue through the morning. Rainfall of 3 to 4 inches expected with locally heavy amounts up to 6 or 7 inches possible.

With downpours, flooding is likely with rapid stream rise, small stream flooding, roadway flooding and ponding of low-lying areas.

Use caution while driving and do not attempt to cross flooded areas and seek higher ground if you live in low-lying areas or near streams.

 

Chapter 9

It began to rain right after Dre came out of the CVS. His Grandma didn’t think to ask what was in the white plastic bag, but only waited until he was buckled in before speeding off.

The fever was upon her.

Once they got to the Pizza Hut, she pointed across the bridge at the lonely convenience store and gas station on the other side.

“I’ll be right over there,” she said.

It was less than a hundred yards away. He could walk it, but she told him to give her a call when he was finished with his pizza and finished with his very non-gambling video games.

Dre figured she was telling him to call her in about an hour to come pick him up, but he wasn’t sure it would take that long.

He opened the door and she smiled and told him, “Have fun.”

Dre waved his hand like this was fine, like this was normal, like his grandma wasn’t on the cusp of having a very serious problem.

She didn’t even wait until he was in the door before the car lurched backwards and then eased back out onto the two-lane in the direction of the Shopaminit.

Only a handful of cars were on the lot. Most of them weren’t near the door and probably belonged to the employees. He counted three vehicles, among them an old Chevy van, a Toyota truck and a beat-up Ford Focus that appeared to be held together with duct tape and bungee cords.

He went inside. The place was dark and reeked of tomato sauce. A blonde woman at the counter, not very old, asked him if he was picking up.

“No,” he said. “My grandma told me to come in here and get something to eat.”

Just to head off any questions about whether he’d come to dine and dash, Dre held up a twenty-dollar bill.

“She’s going to be back in a few minutes,” he said. “She had an errand to run and this was the closest place.”

None of what he said was entirely untrue. The woman shrugged. The twenty had convinced her.

“Just grab a seat and I’ll come and get your order in a minute,” she said.

Trying hard not to jingle as he walked, Dre went to a booth on the far end of the restaurant, near the restrooms, the video games and the jukebox.

Half a minute later, his server came to the table with a menu, told him her name was Jenny and asked if he wanted anything to drink.

“Do you have orange?” He asked.

“We sure do,” Jenny replied. “Do you know what you want to order, or will you need a minute?”

Dre gave her his best serious, little kid face and said, “This is kind of new to me. I’m supposed to get a personal pan, but I’ve never ordered my own pizza!”

Jenny laughed and said she’d go get his drink.

“You take your time.”

Dre nodded enthusiastically. He was laying it on a little thick, but that seemed to be just fine with the server. She was eating up his naïve, little kid act.

Under normal circumstances, Dre would order the supreme. He loved black olives and red onions, along with all the ham, pepperoni and sausage, but he that was weird for someone his age. Most of the kids he went to school with were straight pepperoni and cheese or cheese only pizza-diners.

“A kid that eats mushrooms,” his Dad said once. “How’d we end up with that?”

Dre liked it all and hoped to one day try anchovies on pizza. People were always saying how awful they were, but the funny thing was, he’d eaten at just about every pizza joint in the county. Nobody served anchovies. They weren’t on the menu.

His mama said she’d never been to a pizza place that carried them, which made Dre wonder where the lack of love came from?

One day, he’d find out. Today, however, he was on a mission.

When Jenny came back with his drink, he asked her if she could help him.

“I should probably just get pepperoni,” he said. “That’s what I have at school. We always get pepperoni.”

“But?” the young, blonde server asked.

“I kind of want to try pineapple and ham. I really like pineapple. I love ham and I saw a TV show where some kids were eating ham and pineapple pizza.”

She nodded and said, “Hawaiian pizza.”

“Is it any good?” Dre asked her.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I love Hawaiian pizza and if you don’t like it, we can make you another.”

“That’s really nice,” he said. “Yes, I would like the Hawaiian pizza.”

“I’ll put it in,” she said and off she went.

Dre sipped his drink. The orange was too sweet, like always, but it was a kid’s drink.

He looked around. The place hadn’t changed, except for the video games. Grandma said “Missile Command” and “Gal-something.” It was Galaxian, which would be fun to try –somewhere else.

The last time he’d been in this Pizza Hut, the restaurant had an old “Pac-Man” machine and “Dig Dug.” He’s stood on a chair to see the screen and work the controller.

The jukebox looked the same, though. It was old, and nobody had updated the music in years. There was no rap music in the catalog. The only artists of color were an all-male group called “Boyz to Men,” somebody named “Seal,” and Darius Rucker, who was with a band called “Hootie and the Blowfish.”

Dre had wondered which one he was supposed to be.

From his booth, he couldn’t hear much past the canned music being pumped in. It only changed when someone paid for a song on the jukebox, but he could see Jenny and the other people working behind the counter.

He counted three people –one for each car outside.

Jenny worked the front of the place, sat people at tables and took orders. She also took phone calls for the restaurant.

There was a white guy, about Jenny’s age, with a messy shirt and a wispy, brown beard. Dre guessed he made the pizzas, washed dishes and probably swept up.

Then there was the guy in the clean, brown shirt. He was also white, had a mustache and mostly, just wandered around in back.

Dre couldn’t see that he did anything, which meant he was a manager.

Dre needed to get past him.

But not right yet.

While he waited for his pizza, Dre put the bottle of glue in his pocket and laid the colored pencils on the table. To while away the time and to soothe any suspicions, he drew and colored on the back of his paper mat while working his way to the bottom of his soda.

When Jenny came back with his pizza, the plastic cup was empty, and he’d drawn a picture of a winged horse.

“That’s really good,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said and handed it to her. “I make lots of these. You can have this one.”

She seemed genuinely touched by the gesture.

Dre looked down at his pizza.

“That looks really good,” he said. “I’m glad I ordered the Hawaiian pizza.”

“I hope you like it,” she said and started to turn away.

“Ma’am,” he said a little nervously. “You’ve been so nice, but can I ask you for a favor? It’s kind of a big favor.”

Jenny nodded. “Sure, honey. What’s up?”

“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said, looking toward the men’s room. “I saw someone go in there a minute ago and I really need to go. Could I use the employee bathroom? If it’s too much of a problem, I can try to wait, but I drank too much orange.”

The server laughed.

“OK,” she said. “We can do that. I’ll take you back.”

“Thank-you,” Dre said, scooting out of his booth. “You saved my life.”

She smiled and waved it off. “It’s no big deal. I’m glad you asked.”

“You’re really nice,” he told her and meant it. “I’m sorry to be so much trouble,” he added, which he didn’t really mean.

Dre kept his eyes down and followed her through the flimsy kitchen door.

“Hey, Ryan,” she shouted out. “The men’s room is full. I’m taking a kid to use our bathroom.”

“Fine, fine,” he said. “I’m going to take pizza and make a delivery. I flipped a coin. I’m putting Tim in charge. You have to listen to what he says.”

“I rule,” Tim shouted from across the kitchen.

“You suck,” Jenny said and then whispered to Dre, “I’m sorry. Tim doesn’t really suck. I’m just joking.”

He shrugged. Dre could care less.

She took him to a scuffed, white door in the rear of the store.

“Just go ahead. I’ll wait here, unless I get a customer at the counter. If I’m not here when you come back out, just wait for me, OK?”

Dre nodded solemnly, then he went in.

It was everything he remembered –a small toilet, a grubby sink with a mirror above it and a well-worn plunger in the corner.

The floor could use a mop and there was a metal cabinet embedded in the green tiled wall. This was the restaurant breaker box.

He really did have to go, but after he was finished, Dre took out a bottle of Krazy Glue from his pocket, removed the cap, unsealed the bottle and emptied it into the latch of the breaker box. Then he did it again, making sure to get it in deep.

It would take a crowbar to open that thing now.

After he was finished, Dre wrapped the two bottles in toilet paper and flushed them. Then he washed his hands, left the bathroom and let Jenny walk him back to his seat, where he ate his pizza.

When he was done, Jenny asked him what he thought.

“It was amazing,” he said. “It was the best pizza I’ve ever had!”

When it was time to settle up, he paid his bill and left an oversized tip. His server took it without saying a word. Then he retired to the video games. He dropped a quarter in each machine and played them. Then he put twenty dollars in quarters into the old jukebox.

Twenty-five cents bought one song. Fifty cents bought three. A dollar bought seven songs.

Dre punched in H-14, “Hold My Hand” by Hootie and the Blowfish. He punched it in 140 times. The song came blaring over the restaurant sound system, but before Darius Rucker got to the chorus, Dre was out the door, walking through the rain to go find his grandma.

8 (Nov. 7)

Chapter 8

Skip decided that maybe he’d wait on dinner. The chili cheese dogs were holding him just fine, and he needed to get the dark business done.

He parked his Cadillac in the gently snaking driveway of the appointed house and took a slow stroll up to the faux-plantation style house.

It was about what he expected, along with the “I’m with Her” and “Nasty Women Vote” bumper stickers on the parked Volvo and Subaru Outback.

“Expected,” Skip thought, “And sad.”

That race had been run two years ago but leave it to a Democrat to be stuck in the bubblehead past, instead of looking toward the future.

It was also unprofessional, as far as he was concerned. Only amateurs wore their colors on their sleeve and while nobody would ever mistake Skip McAllister for a member of “the liberal elite,” he didn’t advertise it.

Skip loathed being here. He loathed having to talk to this client and take this job. He wouldn’t be here in person, if he hadn’t planned on taking this job, but he had a family to provide for. They were depending on him.

The client, a Mr. Benjamin Gardner, came from coal money. His family had owned and managed mining interests for about 30 years, during the gravy train days, before selling off their holdings in the late 1980s and becoming paper millionaires.

That money had been soundly invested and so now a generation and a half later, the family was still fantastically wealthy. They were just very quiet about it.

The family had given generously to several charities, donated to the building of a couple of schools, but hadn’t put their name on anything. They’d supported Barack Obama in 2008 and then again in 2012.

During that time, Benjamin had served in the Peace Corps and as a Vista volunteer, after completing his political science degree at Columbia University.

In 2015, he inherited the bulk of the family fortune, began backing the usual airhead liberal causes like gun control and the legalization of recreational marijuana. He put money into the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign (obviously) and started a PAC to send out anti-Trump mailers during the election.

After the results came in that early November Wednesday in 2016, when Donald R. Trump soundly defeated that New York harpy, Benjamin’s cheese slipped off his tiny cracker. He went from being a mousy, little limousine liberal to a baby firebrand.

Benjamin threw money at local candidates and bankrolled investigations in the hopes that if he turned over enough rocks, he’d find something that would be embarrassing, that would help shift the current trends in his state and nationwide.

It was ambitious, but foolish. He didn’t have that kind of money and the Republican party had spent quite a bit of time and energy carefully cultivating candidates in West Virginia.

They had spent generations winning hearts and minds.

It could be argued that Democrats were more passionate. They certainly liked to get their panties in a twist and were determined that every social change needed to happen NOW, but Republicans took the long view. Conservatism wasn’t about throwing bricks through storefront windows or bringing down the establishment. It was about making careful, measured choices, but also making corrections when necessary.

Conservatives saw the country as a great ship that needed to be steered carefully, not a jet ski that skipped across the water every which way before flooding out and sinking like a stone in the middle of the ocean.

Less government was better. Fewer regulations and barriers grew wealth and opportunity. People were inherently decent and could make up their own minds about how to raise their children and best run their lives. The country needed to be protected from enemies foreign and domestic and the concept of the United States being a melting pot was a ridiculous cartoon.

It was white, protestant Christian and run by men.

It was also, most assuredly, heterosexual.

Given other circumstances, Skip might have sat down with Benjamin. Over cigars and coffee, the two of them could have worked through the defects in Benjamin’s liberal indoctrination and Skip could have shown him how wrong-headed his thinking was.

But things were as they were and Skipped needed a job.

He rang the bell at the door and waited just a second before the housekeeper let him in. She was a small, dark-skinned woman with a nose ring.

She led Skip into the house and to an office in back. Benjamin stood up from his desk. Behind him was a window and view of the city of Charleston.

It wasn’t a bad view and drew the eye away from the many framed concert posters and handbills spread out over the pale walls.

The owner of the house appeared to be a great admirer of Jack Johnson, Jimmy Buffet and the Dave Matthews Band. There were pictures, too, of the man before Skip standing and smiling next to sweaty-looking men with guitars, who were probably the aforementioned musicians.

Benjamin walked over to greet him.

They were an obvious and predictable study in contrast. Skip wore a suit. The shirt was tailored linen and his tie cost as much as a month’s groceries for a family of four –a gift from Vice-President Dick Cheney.

His hand-tooled leather belt cost $1200. The clasp was pure American silver.

Only his shoes seemed out of place. This morning, Skip had put on a pair of Dr. Martens 1461 Orleans, which was not an attractive shoe. It was the kind of thing a dot.com executive might wear to show that they hadn’t “sold out,” that in their off-time, they went to Phish concerts or other such nonsense.

Skip would have preferred his Italian loafers, but he’d bought the shoes to perhaps appeal to the senses of his wood-be-client.

Benjamin, on the other hand, dressed like he delivered sandwiches for a living. He had on a “Mountain Stage” t-shirt (some local radio program he’d read about), khakis cargo shorts and sandals, which was entirely out of place for the season.

He was very tan, however.

A multi-colored tattoo peeked out from under a short-sleeve. It appeared to the be the tail of a lizard or perhaps a snake, and a modest diamond stud punctured the man’s ear lobe.

When Skip got out of bed this morning, like every other morning, he’d made careful choices about his wardrobe. Some days, he dressed less formal. He had polo shirts and even a few t-shirts he wore when on vacation someplace warm, like Belize or the Cayman Islands.

This man before him was a mess, a 14-year-old trapped in the body of a man rapidly approaching 30.

“Thank-you for coming,” Benjamin said.

Skip shook the man’s hand and noted his palm was damp. He also noticed the room smelled of burned sandalwood and marijuana.

What had he gotten himself into?

The housekeeper left them, closing the door behind her.

“How was your trip?” Benjamin asked.

“Uneventful, but long,” he told him.

Benjamin offered him and seat and returned to is station behind what appeared to be a vintage, polished steel Engineer’s desk; probably something, Skip thought, left over from his father or grandfather’s days as a coal operator.

It seemed wildly out of place and was covered with stoner, frat boy debris –half a purple geode, the size of a split open volley ball, a collection of robot cars like the kind Skip had given his boys when they were only boys and a variety of marijuana paraphernalia.

“You could have flown,” Benjamin said. “We have two very fine airports here.”

Skip nodded. He’d checked them out. They were serviceable. Neither appeared to have a Cinna-Bon, however, which spoke volumes as far as he was concerned.

“It’s better to travel by car for this kind of work,” he said. “It was long, but a nice drive. The weather was in my favor most of the way. I listened to audio books and podcasts most of the time.”

This was a lie. He listened to big band, classical music and talk radio through his XM radio, but he was dealing with a young liberal. They were impressed with podcasts and audio books, though the idle rich didn’t actually listen to either.

They could read a book, if they wanted. Podcasts didn’t represent them.

“Charleston is a lovely city,” Skip said, not meaning that at either. He thought it looked like a suburb of Pittsburgh, with better hills. “I’m surprised I’ve never been out this way before. It must be glorious later in the fall.”

He doubted that, too, but small talk for this kind of work was inevitable. He wanted Benjamin to think well of him, to like him. It made the other parts of the work easier.

Of course, Skip wasn’t entirely certain about what kind of work he was doing for Benjamin, not exactly. Details were vague, which was natural, given the situation. Skip had been approached by a trusted intermediary who told him that Benjamin Gardner would like to schedule an appointment with him.

The appointment with Skip alone cost $25,000 plus travel expenses. The intermediary paid in cash and then gave him a couple of dates and times to choose from.

“We should get down to it,” Benjamin said, wearily, and then removed a sheet of paper from a drawer. “We’re facing a tough election year, here in this state. Now, I’m not too worried about the national guys. Joe can hold his own.” He rolled his eyes. Clearly, he wasn’t a fan of the senator. “But I’m interested in some of the state races, the undercard, so to speak. Do you follow?”

Skip shrugged. The job involved the state legislature and maybe the judicial elections, which were particularly messy after an indictment, a resignation and a lot of drama at the capital.

Skip had done his homework.

“The damned Republicans are going to hold the house, the supreme court and the governor’s mansion,” Benjamin railed. “There’s nothing to be done about that.”

West Virginia politics were strange. Just a year or so ago, the Democrat governor switched parties. It was a big enough event that it attracted the appearance of the president.

The local press howled about it. The Democratic party howled about it, but it surprised no one in Republican circles.

Most West Virginia democrats were almost indistinguishable from moderate to moderately conservative Republicans. They were barely even pro-labor anymore.

It was really only a matter of time until the state dismantled what remained of the unions in West Virginia, Skip thought.

“What we can do is plan for the future,” he said. “This election will go however it must go, but the next election and the one after that…”

As Skip sat in front of the fine, utilitarian desk and listened to a madman detail his plans. It was astounding. He’d have never thought the stoner capable of something like this. As he listened, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the Rolaids.

Already, his stomach was trying to turn on him.

7 (Nov. 6) continued

So, she spent her money at the little gambling dens, the Hot Spots and pseudo coffee houses where the coffee wasn’t anything special, but where there was always a machine free.

None of these places allowed children inside the door. Many of them were situated in dead-end corners of old shopping centers. They’d taken over bankrupted chain restaurants and shuttered sewing shops. None of them were located next to anything vaguely considered child-friendly. The mall had not embraced boutique gambling. Old-fashioned wagering wasn’t welcome near a town park or pool.

Nobody had thought to put one in next door to the Chuck E. Cheese, which seemed like a natural fit.

The kids could go pump worthless tokens into games to earn tickets for merchandise they valued –fake mustaches, oversized pencils or maybe a stuffed, purple monkey. Meanwhile, parents could be next door, risking the rent money for a fabulous dream vacation.

No one had been so forward thinking as of yet.

The closest thing to a family-friendly establishment were a handful of gas stations and convenience stores, which kept a couple of old machines out back. They’d been grandfathered in or just ignored by the local authorities.

In theory, someone could bring their kids, send them to look for snacks and then pop off to the back to play a couple of dollars before they figured out they’d been abandoned to the care of irritable store employees who signed on to sell beer and cigarettes, not entertain and watch 7-year-olds.

“I don’t know about this, Grandma,” Dre said, finally settling on the pickles and cheese. He could make a sandwich out of that with the turkey. “Mama doesn’t like when you take me along on your trips out.”

“It’s not going to be like that,” she said.

He put the food on the counter, found the bread.

“Maybe I could stick around the house,” he said. “You could go out and I’ll just stay here and watch TV. I’m old enough.”

“If you were old enough, your mama wouldn’t have left you with me,” his grandma said.

Dre rolled his eyes. Oh, the injustice.

“I’ve got a new place,” she said. “They’ve got a couple of machines and a convenience store in front. We’ll go. I’ll play 10 dollars. I will also give you 10 dollars and drop you off next door at the Pizza Hut. You can get something to eat or play the video games.”

“They have video games?” Dre asked. “For real, they have actual, stand-up quarter eating video games.”

“I scoped it out,” she said. “They have two of them. One of them is called ‘Missile Command.’ The other is Gala-something.”

Dre liked the sound of that. Among other things, he considered himself a connoisseur of classic video games. His grandpa got him interested in that. There was an old-style video arcade in Parkersburg. They had about 50 games and another 50 pinball machines –all of them vintage. For 10 bucks and you could play all night if you wanted.

Then Dre remembered something else, a piece of information he’d saved from a long time ago.

“You said Pizza Hut?”

Grandma nodded. “Why, you give up on pizza?”

Dre laughed. That would never happen.

“No, I was just thinking of something.” He started to assemble his sandwich and asked, “Do you think we could stop by the drugstore on the way over? I need to pick up something for a class project –some glue.”

His grandma, noticeably relieved by the lack of resistance, said, “Sure, sure, sure. Whatever you need Andy.”

7 (Nov.6)

Dre rummaged through his grandma’s refrigerator, looking for something to eat.

The shelves looked a little sparse. There was a platter of roast beef covered in aluminum foil, another plate with turkey breast covered in plastic wrap. She had three kinds of cheese –American, sharp cheddar and pepper jack, which he hated.

He found strawberry jam, grape jelly, and a drawer full of apples and pears, but no grapes, no strawberries and no oranges.

There was half a container of low-fat vanilla yogurt and opened jars of pickles, olives and pepper rings, but there was no ice cream, no frozen pizza and no Marie Callendar pot pies and no Hot Pockets.

His grandmother, making her fourth cup of instant coffee, asked him, “Andy, what are you looking for?”

Dre winced at that. He and his mother had explained his preferences regarding his name, but Grandma Collins only nodded and continued to call Dre what she’d called him since he was born, which was never an approved address to begin with.

“Just something to eat,” he told her, head stuck inside the softly humming appliance.

There was bacon, a white, translucent plastic container of macaroni salad that came from Walmart, two smaller re-purposed butter spread containers with baked beans and peas, and four eggs left in the carton.

Dre found two different kinds of butter -one with salt and one without. She had orange marmalade and a quart of 2 percent milk, but no Coke or Pepsi.

Breakfast had been everything his Mama promised. When they’d arrived, she’d had the table laid out for him –biscuits and gravy, bacon and some slices of tomato he could put salt and pepper on. She gave him orange juice and Dre ate it all up.

He didn’t usually eat like that in the mornings.

Most mornings, he grabbed something at the school cafeteria or a bowl of cereal at the house. A couple of times a year, his mother got out the Bisquick and made pancakes and sausage or his dad would spring for a couple of biscuits from Tudor’s or take them to Shoney’s for the breakfast buffet.

None of it was as good as the table his grandma set and he ate more than he probably should have, but those biscuits were from scratch, not from a can. Dre liked canned biscuits just fine. His Mama made them all the time, but grandma’s biscuits felt special.

Lunch had been turkey and roast beef sandwiches with cheese, technically a club sandwich, as much as Dre understood the concept of club sandwiches, but they weren’t as refined as what he got at the Subway.

He liked the French bread better and Grandma put too much mayonnaise on his sandwich, but he’d never tell her that.

Dre ate two sandwiches and a pile of barbecued chips just to be polite.

“How much are you going to eat?” She asked.

Dre shrugged. He was hungry.

“Well, figure out what you’re going to eat and get it done,” she said. “We have to get going.”

Dre looked back over his shoulder.

“Where we going?”

“Out,” his grandmother said, which meant they were going out gambling somewhere.

Grandma retired from the post office four years ago. A year later, she lost Grandpa.

He ran off with a dancer who worked at that club across from the library downtown. Her name was Champagne or Charlie or Carlee. Dre wasn’t entirely certain she’d ever given him the same name twice.

Usually, he just called Nanny, which she got a kick out of, since she was only two years older than Dre’s mother.

It didn’t matter. Grandpa and the dancer fled to Parkersburg, where they ran a Bed and Breakfast and Grandpa did some handyman work.

Dre and his mother went up to visit sometimes, but mostly during the off-season when the B&B didn’t have any guests.

They always treated him nice. His grandpa took him fishing and told him embarrassing stories about what his mother was like growing up. Sometimes, grandpa slipped him $20 and told him to spend it on something stupid.

Dre was happy to oblige.

Champagne or Charlie or Carlee was a lot prettier than his grandmother, if you liked your women to be so fair-skinned and blond, but she wasn’t that great of a cook. Her taste in music was better than his grandma’s, but she thought that rocks could take away bad luck or stomach aches and that drinking special tea made with garbage dug up out of the backyard was better than taking aspirin if you had a headache.

Dre’s mama thought she was a flake but told Dre to never repeat that.

Aside from keeping the books for the B&B, she taught yoga in the big sunroom out back.

Grandpa sometimes watched.

After Grandpa ran off with Nanny, Grandma fell into a deep depression. She did not handle any of it well, but Mama said nobody could blame her. She loved her dad, but said he was a world class jerk.

She also told Dre not to repeat that.

At first, Grandma tried dating, “getting back in the game” was what Dre’s dad called it. He’d always like Grandma Collins, even if the rest of her family was “a bunch of trashy mouth-breathers who were dumber than a bag of hammers.”

Dre was told, once again, not to repeat that.

Grandma tried meeting single men in the places that most people went to meet men –mostly, bars and grocery stores –and had little success. She tried different grocery stores and different bars, moving from the nicer places to the places that were frequented by people that the county sheriff probably kept pictures of in his wallet.

She never met a man she liked –at least liked well enough to bring around twice –but while looking for love in all the typical places, she discovered something else.

Poker machines.

Grandma didn’t really drink all that much. If she ordered alcohol someplace, it was always some very elaborate and sugary-sweet cocktail; the kind that usually included a fruit kabob and a little doll hanging out of the glass.

These were the kinds of drinks she got when she and Grandpa had taken cruises or gone on vacation in the Bahamas.

No local bars served those kinds of drinks –or if they did, Grandma got tired of listening to the bartender giggle as he made them.

She had to do something in those bars. She tried pool. She tried darts, but the only thing that made Dre’s grandma feel like a duck in water at a dive bar was pumping dollar bills in a poker machine.

She could play for hours.

For a while, she took her money and went up to the casino and dog track in Cross Lanes, what the locals called “Cross Vegas.” She went with a women’s group, a former book club that had ran out of anything good to read. The group took trips to that casino and other casinos within driving distance. Everyone went with a set amount of money, won or lost whatever money they brought with them and then came home.

Usually, they stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way back.

This was good for Grandma. It was manageable. She was getting out with people her own age, many of them also women who’d lost their husbands, some of them to strippers, but most of them to heart disease and diabetes.

It was social, but then something went wrong at Cross Vegas. She got into a shouting match with a lady seated next to her at a blackjack table, which spilled over to the roulette wheel and turned into a full-on brawl.

Security was called and then the sheriff.

No charges were filed, but Grandma was put on a lifetime ban from playing at the local casino. The experience also soured the group toward her. They didn’t want any trouble. They were all respectable women, who liked to shop at outlet stores, spend money at the track and order the same thing over and over at Bob Evans, swearing that it tasted different in Ohio.

Grandma never got asked to come along again.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 (Nov.5)

Weather

 

“Um, this afternoon, expect cloudy skies and some light rain. Highs in the 60s and 70s, a little lower in the higher elevations and in the eastern part of the state. Tonight, um, rain throughout the state. Temperatures in the 50s and lower 60s.

“Tomorrow, rain, heavy at times with isolated downpours expected. Flash flooding possible in the low-lying areas. Temperatures in the 60s.

“Coming up, Snap Judgement. You’re listening to WVPB.”

 

Chapter 6

Rose cracked open another energy drink and fought the urge to scream and cry while rampaging through the store, tearing down displays and hurling cans of motor oil through the storefront window.

Greg wasn’t coming in. Three hours ago, he’d gone out to cut his front yard before getting ready for work. There’d been so much rain lately, he just hadn’t gotten around to it, his wife, Ginny, told Rose.

It was still muddy. Their house was on the side of a hill. He slipped, tripped and the mower followed him down into the ditch by the road. The blade caught Greg’s right foot, cut through his tennis shoe and dug into the flesh, stopping after it hit bone.

“There was blood everywhere and I had to get the dogs off of him,” Ginny told Rose over the phone. “I got him to the hospital. They got the bleeding stopped, but we just got the x-ray back. No breaks, but they’ve still got to stitch him up.”

Greg, who was in quite a bit of pain, asked Ginny to call for him.

Rose could hear him grunting in the background, could hear the eerie echo-chamber of the hospital waiting room. She sighed and asked, “Do you think they’ll have him stitched up and able to come in later to close?”

Ginny was quiet for a moment.

“I don’t know, Rose,” Ginny told her. “He looks kind of pale. He lost some blood and I don’t know how good he’s going to be after they send him home.”

“Why don’t we take a wait-and-see,” Rose said. “I know this is a mess, but we’re short-handed right now.”

“I don’t know, Rose… Could you maybe call Craig or Kelly?”

Rose ignored that and said, “Well, I hope he feels better. Let me know when you get home and all.”

She’d hung up and called Matt.

“We have a problem,” she said before he had a second to get a word in. “Greg is out. He half cut his foot off with a lawnmower. There’s nobody coming in to relieve me.”

Silence on the other end.

“You have to come back,” she said.

“Margie,” Matt said slowly. “We’re in the middle of a very important meeting here and then we’re supposed to take a tour. That’s going to be another couple of hours.

“At best, you’re looking at around six hours before we even get back to Charleston and that’s if we hoof it.”

“You could leave now,” she said, her voice rising. “You could come home and close your store, let your very pregnant manager who has already put in 60 plus hours for this pay period go home.”

“I know this is tough,” Matt said. “But Margie has her heart set on staying. They’re really nice people. They fed us a good lunch, real food and not just boxed lunches from Subway.”

Gritting her teeth, Rose said, “It. Is. A. Time. Share. They. Want. You. To. Buy. One.”

“Well, I don’t know if we’ll end up doing that, but so far, what I’m hearing is very compelling –and we got to stay in a unit last night. It was very comfortable.”

“Either you come home or I’m locking up and going home,” Rose said.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “That store needs to stay open.”

“That store needs to have somebody to work it,” she replied. “Right now, it appears to only have me, and I want to go home, Matt.”

Matt was quiet for a moment.

“Fine, close early,” he said. “But I need you to stay until nine.”

He wanted her to stay until midnight. The store didn’t see a lot of traffic with people buying gas or snacks, but there were always a couple of people in back, pumping quarters in the half-dozen poker machines Matt had in the back room.

“No,” Rose said. “I’ll stay until seven –and if I have to open in the morning, you need to be here to relieve me by noon. Otherwise, I’m locking up and going home at lunch.”

Matt sighed. “Margie isn’t going to like that. We were going to sleep in and go out someplace special for brunch and probably stop at Tamarack on the way back.”

“Noon, Matt. I will close the store at noon, before the church crowd lets out. I’ll turn off the pumps and lock the door.”

That would be a mess. There were four churches just on this road. They always had a big crowd come through Sunday afternoon.

“This feels like you’re holding me hostage,” her boss complained. “We’re going to have a talk about this when I get back.”

“I look forward to it,” she said, menacingly. “Be here tomorrow at noon.”

Rose hung up and sat fuming for nearly an hour before Ryan pulled up in his beat-up Ford, came strolling in, all smiles and pepperoni breath.

“Hey, I thought you got off at two,” he said.

“Not today,” she said. “Matt and Margie are in Tennessee until morning and Greg cut his foot on his lawnmower. He’s at the hospital getting checked out. What are you doing here? Don’t you got a store to manage?”

Ryan was briefly taken aback by the hostility, but only briefly. The smile only flickered for half a second.

“I’m sorry you’re having a bad day,” he said. “I know how you feel. They make you manager. You take it for the pay and the authority, but it’s just a lot more work and hassle, am I right?”

Rose glared at him, like he was some kind of over-sized insect. She’d taken the promotion because it looked better on a resume. The money was garbage, except for more hours. Matt provided no benefits and she had only marginal authority over anyone else who worked there.

Ryan plowed through.

“Yeah, I got a store to manage. I’m there until close tonight,” he said. “Lunch was over, which wasn’t much today, and I just took a break. When you work around pizza all the time, you just want to get away from it for a while, you know?”

She nodded. That, Rose understood.

“Yeah, I get sick of microwave burritos, Doritos and Slim Jims. I wish Matt had put in a sandwich shop or something here,” she said.

He grabbed a bag of unsalted peanuts and dropped them on the counter. Then, he looked up.

“Hey, you know, if you wanted a pizza, I could get you one,” he said and laughed, like it was the most obvious thing, but he’d somehow forgotten. “Whatever you want. I’ll have my people make it up and I’ll bring it back over, whenever you say.”

Rose’s first thought was “this guy’s a scumbag. I know he is. I just don’t know why I know that.”

Her second thought was “pizza sounds really good.”

“Fine,” she said. “Bring it over around 5 –let me have pepperoni, ham, beef and sausage –also bacon if you’ve got it.”

The Pizza Hut manager laughed, “A carnivore special. Yeah, a meat lover’s pizza. I can do that. I like that one, too.” He paid for his peanuts and said, “I’ll bring it over at 5, along with a couple of drinks.” He took his purchase and his change, then added, “It will be just like a little date.”

Rose wanted to tell him, “the hell it was,” but Ryan was already out the door.

She felt like her day had somehow gotten worse. She’d gone from having to open a store, to opening and closing a store. Now, she had a date with a creep who had the same name as that guy on “American Idol.”

“Well, at least there will be pizza,” she said and watched him speed off toward the bridge and his little fiefdom on the other side of the river.

 

 

 

 

 

6 (Nov. 4)

Chapter 5

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.

Millennials, mostly.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 (Nov. 3)

Chapter 4

“Andre, sweetie, it’s time to get up.”

Groggily, Dre awakened to the face of his mother. She’d already made her face and brushed her red hair, which shined like copper wire in this light.

For about the hundred-thousandth time he wished he’d ended up with at least the color of his mother’s hair, which, as far as he was concerned, was the best part about being white –the red hair.

Her pale milk-white skin burned. She couldn’t stay out in the sun very long and you could always tell when she got mad or embarrassed.

Dre didn’t have red hair and he didn’t have her eyes, either, which were bright blue, like the color of crayon.

He had his father’s hair, his father’s eyes and his father’s skin which were all dark brown, which he was perfectly happy with –well, mostly. Red hair looked cool, but you could dye your hair whatever color you wanted, so it wasn’t really all that big of a deal.

“You slept with your headphones on again,” she told him. “You can’t do that, sweetie. Those things are expensive and if you break them, I can’t buy you another set.”

He nodded. He understood, but then told her, “Mama, call me Dre.”

“Dre?” She said. “What brought this on? You were Andre yesterday.”

He put the big, ear-hugging noise-cancelling headset on the nightstand and sat up. He looked toward his musical heroes, plastered on his walls –Drake, Kendrick Lamar, XXXTentacion and Ski Mask.

How to explain, Dre wondered.

He thought about the rappers on his bedroom walls. They didn’t always get along with each other, sometimes seemed like they might be on the verge of killing each other, but they universally preached to be true to yourself.

On the back of the bedroom door, Darius Rucker looked down at him and Dre tried to ignore whatever whitewashed, hillbilly nonsense was coming up from his evil heart.

His mother had tried to explain that it wasn’t particularly weird for a black man to be a country singer, that there’d been others, though she couldn’t recall their names.

Dre’s grandma had given him the poster, even though he’d been very clear regarding his opinions of country music, even country music performed by a black man. Dre’s mother understood his feelings but told him that he needed to be respectful.

Grandma was trying really, really hard.

Dre’s mother was waiting for an answer.

“I guess this is just the next phase for me,” he said.  “It is the next level. I have plateaued in my development and I find myself needing to define myself, appropriately. When I was a child, I spake as a child and all that. Now…”

“Now, you think you’re a man?” Dre’s mother looked both concerned and amused.

“I think I’m well on my way,” he replied.

She laughed, but it wasn’t a mean laugh. She sat down on the bed next to him and said, “Andrew Sean Collins, if you want to be called Dre, so be it, but you’re going to have to settle on a name and stick with it.”

Dre nodded, acknowledging the truth. He had gone by Sean through kindergarten, even though the school counselor, Mrs. Perry, told him that maybe changing his name wasn’t such a great idea at his age. He’d tried Andrew for a little while to humor her. She was a nice lady, but he didn’t feel like an Andrew.

He’d insisted on Sean and gone by Sean, but he didn’t like Sean. The word hung in his mouth wrong and the only Sean that he sort-of identified with was Sean Combs, who also had trouble settling on a single name.

Sean might have been alright until he found his real name, but his grandma watched Sean Hannity on television and that man was the devil.

So, he tried Drew.

The name change flustered his teacher and the school counselor asked him if he thought his difficulty with settling on a name had to do with his father being black and his mother being white?

Dre asked her if she knew she smelled like day-old hotdog water?

That response got him into a little trouble, but Dre didn’t mind. Lots of kids in his class had parents, grandparents or brothers and sisters that weren’t the same color as they were. He knew a kid who had two moms, somebody else whose parents were both in jail, and another kid who carted around an oxygen machine.

None of them seemed to be having any trouble adapting to not being whatever Mrs. Perry thought they were supposed to be, not that it was any of her business.

He just didn’t like his name.

The artist currently known-as Dre kept Drew through most of the third grade before switching to Andre. Now, that he was two weeks into being 10-years-old, Dre felt like the person he wanted to be, even if he wasn’t him yet.

“OK, mama. I’ll stick with Dre, I promise.”

She kissed him on his forehead. Her long hair brushed his face, but she smelled nice, which was another warning sign, along with the makeup.

“You need to get cleaned up and get dressed,” she told him. “I got called into work. You’re going to your grandma’s today.”

Dre sucked in his breath. Anything but that. He loved Grandma, but he preferred her in small doses –like pretty much everyone else did.

“Can’t I just go stay with Dad? You could trade a weekend or something?”

“He’s busy,” she told him. “I called him first, but he said he’s got things to do today and he didn’t think he could get away with taking you with him.”

Dre was disappointed. He saw his Dad often; usually went with him for the weekend twice a month, and then worked out a weeknight (usually Sunday or Monday) to go do something at least every other week.

His dad sold cars for a living but hadn’t been doing it for very long. His schedule was complicated and dependent on the whims of the people who’d been at the dealership much longer.

Sometimes, he had to go to work when he didn’t want to, but he did always pick Dre up in a nice car, which was always a nice perk.

He never showed up in the same car twice and Dre liked that.

If his Dad had to work on a Saturday, Dre would usually hang out with his Dad’s girlfriend, Teri, who looked very similar to Dre’s mother, but wasn’t as smart.

Teri was nice. She let him play whatever video games he wanted, let him watch Youtube videos on her laptop, and usually took him to get Taco Bell for lunch.

Dre would have hated her anyway if his Mama had told him to, but Mama said it was OK if Dre liked her.

He didn’t really remember his parents ever living together, only barely remembered a time when Teri hadn’t been with his Dad.

His father had it easy compared to his mother. Dre’s mother had gone through a string of boyfriends. Some had been friendly, took them out to eat or to movies. Some had been ugly to them and while Dre couldn’t always remember the good boyfriends, he always remembered the jerks. He remembered their faces, where they lived and where they worked.

It was pretty easy. Dre’s mother tended to find new boyfriends wherever she was working, which occasionally meant when they broke up, one or both of them had to get a new job. Getting the job at the makeup store in the mall fixed all that. His mother didn’t work with any men she could date. There was just Clifford, who did manicures, and he had a boyfriend.

“I could just stay home,” Dre offered. “I do that after school all the time. I can handle a whole day.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “While I am certainly aware of your capabilities regarding food preparation and general cleanliness.” She cast a modestly disparaging glance at the crust of clothes, toys and junk covering his floor. “I feel that it would be better if you had some supervision. We may revisit this matter in about two to three years.”

“Mama!”

“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” his mother told him. “She’s already working up a breakfast for you, all your favorites –biscuits and gravy, sausage and fried apples.”

He relaxed. Nobody cooked like his grandma.

“Can I listen to my music?” he asked.

His mother shrugged. He could try.

Grandma Collins lived in Mink Shoals, which was just outside of Charleston and practically a different planet from where Dre and his mama rented a house on the city’s west side.

On the west side, the houses were closer together. In his neighborhood, they weren’t as nice as the houses around where his grandma lived and some of them were abandoned. Every once in a while, Dre saw ragged men, most of them white, wandering past his house, either on foot or peddling a bicycle.

Sometimes, they smoked while they pedaled, which Dre thought was funny until he figured out it wasn’t.

The strangers frightened him because he seldom saw the same man more than a few times before that man was replaced by someone else who looked just like him –just washed out and sick.

There were gunshots from time to time, yelling down the street and the police, but Dre liked where he lived. His friends were there. He fit in and there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Tudor’s Biscuit World just a couple of blocks one way and a McDonalds and a Taco Bell the other way.

All Grandma had was a regular sit-down place next to the hotel and a pizza place. They were OK, he guessed, though mostly, Grandma wanted to eat at Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans, which made slightly fancier stuff than what she cooked at home.

At least Cracker Barrel had candy.

Grandma lived not far from Coonskin Park, which had tennis courts, a playground and swimming pool with a slide.

It wasn’t as crowded as the city pool his mother sometimes took him to during the summer and he could walk to it, if anyone ever let him.

Dre packed his things. His mother said she wasn’t sure, but she might have to close her store. If that happened, she’d call and then pick him up in the morning.

“Before church?” He asked.

Grandma went to a big, white people church. The choir sang like they’d all been kicked out of a high school show choir and the preacher talked like he was trying to sell you something you didn’t particularly want or need.

Dre didn’t always know what Brother Almond was talking about at Luther Street Gospel, but he appreciated how much he cared about it.

His mother rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that bad,” Mama said.

Dre thought about pointing out that she was also white, but both of them already knew this.

 

 

 

4 (Nov.3)

(continued from 3)

 

Ryan pushed through the door and smiled as he looked over at Rose. His eyes widened, as if he was somehow surprised she was there.

Rose was 100 percent certain he had seen her standing outside smoking when he pulled onto the lot.

“Good morning,” he said. “What are you doing here? I thought you had the weekend off.”

It irritated Rose that he knew this. She didn’t remember telling him, but she shrugged and said, “Matt and Marge are out of town. Craig and Kelly got fired. We’re a little short.”

Matt nodded and began picking through the snack cakes and energy bars across from the cookies and the candy.

“I knew about Kelly. He put in an application Tuesday over at my store. I was going to ask you about that.”

Legally, Rose knew he couldn’t ask for much of anything past whether he worked at the store or not, but she really resented giving up her weekend.

“What do you want to know?”

“What kind of worker is he?” Ryan asked. “He has a lot of experience doing a lot of things, but not a lot of experience doing any of those things for very long.”

She laughed. This was true, but Rose told him, “He showed up on time. He never called off and he always completed the tasks he was required to complete by the end of his shift. I never had to call the sheriff on him for dipping his hand in the register.”

The beer cooler was a different matter, but the cops weren’t exactly involved directly.

“But you fired him,” he said.

“Yep. It seemed like the Shopaminit wasn’t a good fit.”

Ryan flashed the smile again and raised an eyebrow, incredulously. This was supposed to be charming.

“Really, that’s all you’re going to give me?”

Rose shrugged and told him, “What else is there to tell? We gave it a try. He didn’t fit in over here.”

“Would you hire him again, you know, if you were to do it all over?”

Hell no, she thought. He was pathologically lazy and if he’d brazen enough to pinch beers from the cooler, he’d probably already been stealing whatever wasn’t nailed down. Rose only hated that she’d been the one who had to deal with it.

She told Ryan, “You know, I have no idea. Matt liked him enough to give him the greenlight. I just do what Matt wants. He owns the place.”

Ryan settled on a crunchy peanut butter Cliff Bar and brought it to the counter.

“I guess you could take it up with Matt when he gets back, see what he thinks,” Rose said and rang up the overpriced, hipster candy bar.

She hated those things. They were gooey and bland enough to make you think you were eating something healthy but had that little touch of sweetness to remind you that you could have just eaten a Snickers bar and achieved the same results.

“Do you think Matt would hire him again?” Ryan asked.

Probably, Rose thought. They got along, and Matt seemed annoyed after she cut Kelly loose, more than he did about her firing Craig.

Craig had been far more reliable, and willing to work. He’d been at the store longer, too. Rose was already considering asking Matt about bringing him back. She figured he’d probably learned his lesson –don’t drink company beer on company time, in front of customers.

Rose wondered, however, if Matt would tell her that if she wanted to bring Craig back, she needed to hire Kelly, too.

Rose sighed and said, “You know what, I think he would. I think it was mostly just personality clashes between him and me. We didn’t get on. Maybe he would have better luck over at your place. For all I know, that’s his calling.”

Also, she thought, Pizza Hut has beer on tap, which would be harder for anyone to notice missing. Kelly could probably slip that in a soda bottle or something.

“You could give him a try,” Rose told him, thinking that if Kelly was already employed (and at a rate a bit higher than what he could make at the Shopaminit, not including tips) then she’d be free to bring Craig back without Matt getting in the way.

Ryan shook his head. He was apparently considering it.

“He seemed OK to me. He was a couple of years ahead of me in high school. He used to sell pot to my older brother –but that was a long time ago.”

It occurred to Rose that maybe it hadn’t been that long ago. Matt was somewhere in his late to mid-40s and very middle-class. They had a nice place in Fort Hill. Who did Matt know that he could buy pot from? He and Marge didn’t have any kids.

“You do what you want,” she told Ryan finally.

“Thanks,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it. Then he asked, “How’s the baby?”

She put a hand on her stomach, looked down and said, “Oh, fine. She’s kicking quite a bit this morning.”

Ryan brightened a little and said, “Well, that sounds good, very encouraging.” He looked at her hand on her belly and asked, “Do you think, would it be OK, if I tried to feel the baby kick?”

She nodded and told him, “Maybe later. I think she’s sleeping right now.”