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Monday, June 30, 2014

All the Money in the World, Part 1

            Charles Hoffelt sat at his desk looking over McBurger’s financials for the quarter. His office sat on the 78th floor at the northeast corner of the Empire State Building and often he liked to take in the bird’s eye view of the city at four in the afternoon, but today he was concerned by what he felt were the company’s rising labor costs. Business was good, and profits were steadily increasing, but his end of the year bonus couldn’t handle the weight of rising labor costs.
            He pushed a button on the black intercom that sat on his desk. “Ms. Terrien,” he said, “can you come in here please?”
            The etched glass door to the office opened and a blond woman in her late twenties dressed in a conservative pants suit, carrying a yellow legal pad, walked in. “Yes, Mr. Hoffelt?” she asked.
            “How much do you think I make a year, Stephanie?” Charles asked her.
            “I don’t think, sir,” Stephanie said. “I’m your assistant, it’s part of my job to know how much you make.”
            “How much do I make then?”
            “You make $8.75 million annually before bonuses, sir.”
            “And how much do our employees make?”
            “The annual wage of our employees varies, sir, but entry level wage at the franchise level is $7.25 an hour. Most entry level employees work anywhere from twenty to thirty hours a week. So on the high end our entry level workers make approximately $11,310 an hour.”
            “That much?” he asked. He looked at her for the first time since she entered the office. He laid the budget down on the desk. “I thought it was less than that.”
            “It was, but there was a minimum wage increase recently. Despite the increase, many of our employees find that the wage leaves them in poverty.”
            “There are government programs to assist with that, though, aren’t there?”
            “Yes sir, but the employees feel that even after government assistance they are far below the poverty line.” Stephanie sat down in a chair across the desk from Charles. “Recent company-wide surveys indicate that many of our employees are particularly worried about the coming holiday season. They’re struggling to provide for their families as it is, let alone handling the traditional holiday requirements.”
            Charles leaned back in his chair. “Stephanie, what is our motto here at McBurger?”
            “Better, faster, cheaper.”
            “If we raise employee wages, how would we be able to keep that motto?”
            “I don’t have the answer to that, sir, but at the current wages our employees can’t even afford to buy our own food.”
            Charles leaned forward. “Our employees aren’t buying our food?”
            “They can’t afford it, sir.”
            “That’s a travesty.” He stood up and turned to the window. “Profits are up, but profits obviously aren’t where they could be.” He stroked his forehead then ran his hand through his hair. “Stephanie, can you get Jim on the line for me?”
            “Oh I forgot, sorry,” he said, turning around, “you don’t know Jim. Representative Jim Eldridge.”
            “The Congressman?”
            “Yes, we’re old golfing buddies. I think he can help us out here.” Charles sat back down at his desk. “If you look through my directory you should find several different numbers for him. Use his cell phone. Congress is in recess and I doubt he’ll be in his office today.”
            “Yes sir.” Stephanie stood up from her chair and exited the room.

            Charles picked up the budget and looked over it again, shaking his head. It was only a few minutes before the phone rang. He picked it up.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Story Behind "Running to Stand Still"

Here’s yet another short story with a title based on a song. In this case it’s U2’s “Running to Stand Still”.

This story was inspired by a stop at a stop sign. As I drove home from class one day a green Dodge truck stopped in front of me for an inordinate amount of time. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver and my first impulse was that they were on the phone getting directions to their next destination. Being the creative type, however, the next thing to pop into my head was that the driver might be having a heart attack. I didn’t take this impulse very seriously, and when they finally decided to move I decided to craft a story around that concept.

For the first half of the story, I took a couple items from school life for inspiration. Professor Parker was inspired by a professor I had for a couple of classes who studied in England and is also a Jesuit priest. He’s a great professor, and students who get past the massive amount of material he assigns thoroughly enjoy his class. (Over one semester we read The Portrait of a Lady, Madame Bovary, Wurthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice all of which we found we had to purchase after our first day of class since the professor doesn’t use technology.) He can be tough though if you don’t put in the effort.

The policy about waiting 24 hours to discuss a grade on a paper didn’t come from that professor though, it actually came from a Public Speaking class. Our instructor, a graduate student who was student teaching to work her way through grad school, had that requirement to allow students to think about the grade and come up with a reasonable argument for why they should receive a better grade. On occasion a reasonable argument would receive a better grade.

The student characters weren’t based on anyone in particular. I included a slight religious joke in the character of Saul/Paul though. If you don’t know the story, the apostle Paul was originally a Roman named Saul until he was blinded on the road to Damascus leading to his conversion to Christianity and his name change to Paul.

I do intend to revise this one, although I’m not sure if I want to extend the story and give more reason for Jenny Hollander’s brief appearance, or if I want to keep it short and omit her. I also want to give Oliver more conflict at the end of the story as well. If you have other suggestions I’d be more than happy to hear them!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Running to Stand Still, Part 2

            Oliver drove his blue ‘13 Ford F-150 down Menlo Boulevard. The speed limit was 25 MPH but he was going 40 until he came up to a green ’98 Dodge that was doing 20 at the corner of Prospect.
He punched his steering wheel. “Come on,” he shouted. “I ain’t getting any younger back here.”
The Dodge stopped at a stop sign at the Maryland intersection. It didn’t move.
Oliver punched his horn twice. “What the hell?” He hit the horn and held it for five more seconds. He considered driving around the Dodge, but a raised median prevented him. He hit the horn one more time, but when there was no movement he got out of his truck and walked up to the Dodge.
The tinting on the window of the Dodge made it nearly impossible to see into the truck, but there was a figure that seemed to be shuddering behind the tint. Oliver slowly reached up and pulled the latch on the truck door.
When the door opened, there was an old lady in her 70’s in the driver seat; her left hand on the steering wheel and her right armed gripping a man of the same age in the passenger seat. Her gray bangs covered her eyes, matted to her cheeks by the tears that dripped off her chin on to her blouse.
“Je ne,” she said. “Je ne suis...” She was stuttering through heavy sobs.
“I’m sorry,” Oliver said, “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t know,” she said. She spoke with a thick French accent. She burst into sobs. “He’s dead.”
“Do you have a...”
“The clinic...” She was almost inaudible through the sobs. “Chest pains.”
“Do you have a phone?” Oliver asked.
She shook her head.
Oliver started to move away. The woman grabbed his arm with her left hand.
“I’ll be right back, I promise.”
She released her grip, but didn’t move her hand. Slowly Oliver moved away from her hand. He ran back to his truck and pulled his cell phone from the passenger side of his Ford. He dialed 911. The operator came on the line. Before they could finish their opening sentence Oliver said, “I think someone’s had a heart attack, we’re at the corner of Maryland and Menlo.” Without turning off his phone, he threw it back into the truck and ran back to the Dodge. The woman was still sobbing. Oliver placed his hand on her shoulder and knelt down next to the truck. “Help is on the way,” he told her.
Quarante-sept ans...” She shook her head through sobs. “Forty-seven years we have been together. I don’t know how to be alone.”
Oliver rubbed her shoulder as he looked down at the road beneath him.
“Don’t leave me, please,” she said.

Oliver looked up at her. “I promise I won’t leave you. You’re not alone.” The woman placed her right hand on the hand that rubbed her shoulder as the sound of sirens came up Maryland Avenue.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Running to Stand Still, Part 1

            Oliver sat in the back of the classroom staring at the paper Professor Parker had just passed back to him. It was Oliver’s last class of the day. Scrawled over the paper’s title, “Oedipus Wrecked” was a large red capital D. Oliver’s hand tightened and the paper crumpled with it. The rustle of multiple backpacks zipping closed and being picked up by their owners filled the room as students started making their way out of the room. Oliver stared at Professor Parker. Professor Parker sat at the front of the class behind a gray table. Behind him, his cane rested against the wall underneath the classroom white boards. He was reviewing his attendance book through a pair of small glasses that were pinched to the tip of his nose.
            Oliver stood up and made his way down the row of desks through the departing students to Professor Parker’s table. Professor Parker looked up at Oliver. Oliver’s jaw clenched and his cheeks bulged. He unclenched his jaw and his face went back to normal. Professor Parker removed his glasses and placed the on the table. He leaned back in his chair, scratching his withered neck through his turtleneck sweater.
            “How can I help you, Mr. Krosky?” Professor Parker asked.
            “I want to talk to you about my paper,” Oliver said.
            “As I stated at the beginning of class, Mr. Krosky, you may discuss your grade after you have had twenty four hours to review your paper. I will not discuss it a moment sooner.”
            Oliver clenched his fist, the paper crinkled. “But, sir...”
            “There are no buts, Mr. Krosky.” Professor Parker leaned forward and started reviewing his attendance book again. “The rules apply to everyone. You are not exempt; as I’ve already informed you concerning the attendance policy.”
            Oliver clenched his teeth again.
            “Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Krosky?”
            Oliver didn’t answer. He turned around, walked back to his desk, and picked up his backpack. He quickly threw the wrinkled paper into his bag, zipped it up and walked out of the classroom. As he rounded a corner outside the classroom he nearly ran into a soda machine. Oliver balled up his fist and punched it three times.
            “Whoa,” a guy across the hall called out to him. Oliver turned around, one of his classmates walked up to him.
            “Oh, hey,” Oliver said. “Ah, I’m sorry, I forgot your name.”
            “Saul,” he said, “but most people call me Paul. You alright, man.”
            “Parker gave me a goddamn D on the paper man. What’d you get?”
            “I got a B man.”
            “How’d you pull that off?” Oliver asked.
            “Earned it, I guess.” Saul took a pack of gum out of his pocket. He offered Oliver a piece, but Oliver declined. After shoving a stick of gum in his mouth, “I’d say I worked on that shit for at least a week. How ‘bout you?”
            “I finished it the morning it was due.”
            “Yeah?” The corners of Saul’s mouth twitched. “When did you start it?”
            “I think Parker’s got something against my dad man.”
            “Oh really?” Saul smiled. “They go to school together?”
            “Fuck you, man. My dad’s not old as sin.” Oliver turned toward the door at the end of the hall and started walking.
            “So what are you going to do about it then?” Saul called after him.

            Oliver left the building. As he walked across campus, he kept balling up his fists and muttering under his breath. “I’ll talk to the goddamn department chair, that’s what I’ll do.” “He can’t treat me like this, just ain’t right.” He didn’t look up when Jenny Hollander from his Survey of Astronomy class called out to him. He didn’t see her strawberry blond hair wave in the breeze, or notice how the wind hiked up her short skirt to reveal her unblemished thighs. As he kept walking, so did she, shrugging off his ignorance.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Story Behind "Headin' for a Breakdown"

This story came as part of a prompt that was given in my final Fiction Workshop class at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. The idea was to give us restrictions to help release creativity. The results were interesting. While many of us had similar concepts, there were many others who came up with stories that were fairly different in structure. Even among those of us with similar concepts, the outcomes often turned out to be vastly different.

I want to give you the full details of the prompt, but first I want to point out the character of Daryl McGrady. In the story he shows up to help Crystal and Elias. This character was purposely meant to evoke the character of Elroy McGrady from “Elroy McGrady’s Blues”. This takes place a few decades after “Blues”, and therefore Daryl is meant to be a nephew or grand-nephew of Elroy (Elroy has no children).

Following you’ll find the prompt that was used to create “Headin’ for a Breakdown” (the title, like many of my titles, comes from a song; lyrics in the song “Breakdown” by Relient K). Hopefully, some of my fellow writers will find this prompt helpful, and should you choose to use it I’d be interested to see what you come up with!

Car Broke Down Story

As an experiment, you’re all going to write a story of about 10 pages using the same basic ingredients and procedures. Bring in two completed copies, proofread, double-spaced, pages numbered, etc., to class next week, on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

Characters: A & B, a couple. A third character, C, must enter before the end of the story.
Initial Setting: Side of the road, inside or outside the car.
Inciting Incident/Complication: Car has broken down.
Background circumstance, surface: Driving to A’s parents’ place for a family gathering.
Background circumstance, sub-surface: B is contemplating breaking up with A, but is genuinely unsure whether that’s the right choice. A may or may not know this; it’s up to you.
Other Problems: Feel free to add other surface and sub-surface problems, just don’t overload.
Surface goal: Get to the family gathering, 30 miles away. They will not get there by story’s end.
Sub-surface goal: ? Up to you.

POV: Use 3rd Person Objective/Dramatic (like a movie camera, this POV can record any physical observations and facts, but can’t go inside any character’s head or heart). It is OK to tell objective facts like, “She was starting her senior year and would be the first person in her family to graduate from college.” I will allow you up to 3 sentences that reveal a character’s thoughts/feelings, if you must. But ideally you’ll be able to reveal thoughts and feelings through dialogue, gesture, tone, etc.
Be real. For the rest of the semester you may do as you wish, but for this story, keep it realistic.
Love your characters. Do them the honor of taking their strengths and weaknesses seriously and of working hard to capture their complexities.
No Death or Major Bodily Injury.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Headin' for a Breakdown, Part 2

Crystal sighed as she made her way back to the car’s open passenger side door. She reached inside and pulled her cell phone from the cup holder in the center console. As she stood back up, she tapped a button on the side of the phone. The screen remained blank. She held the button down and the Motorola home screen flashed to life. Almost immediately the phone’s screen dimmed and flashed the message, “Battery life is at 0%. Please connect charger.” This message was followed by another message that read, “Powering down,” before the screen went blank. Crystal tossed the phone onto the car seat before slamming the door.
“My phone’s dead,” she said as she walked around to the front of the car where Elias leaned against the hood. “I must have zoned out on solitaire. Didn’t realize I had played that much. How about your phone?”
Elias pulled his phone out of his pocket, pushed a button on the side, and placed it back in his pocket. “Mine’s dead too.”
“How’s yours dead? You’ve been driving.”
“I must have been using it a lot before we left.”
“To do what?”
“I don’t know, does it matter?”
“Yeah, I think it does. Maybe if you’d been looking for a real job, a new car, or some kind of direction for your life I might understand. But knowing you, you were probably...”
“Waiting for you to get goddamn ready,” he interrupted, standing up from the hood of the car. “You’re always talking so high and mighty like the sun shines out of your ass, but you can never be on time for shit.”
“Maybe if you had told me before this morning that we were going to see your parents I could have been ready sooner, but you can’t even take responsibility for that. Even if I was ready we wouldn’t have made it on time because your goddamn car would have broke down anyway.”
Elias turned away from Crystal and looked back down the highway. “I told you, I’ll get a new car when I have the money.”
Crystal stormed over and stood in front of Elias. “You can’t wait that long now, can you? Who’s going to bail you out this time, hmm? I guess it’ll have to be me since your parents don’t give a flying crap about you.”
“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?” Elias asked. “Just say it, you don’t like my parents.”
“Yes!” Crystal screamed. “I hate your fucking parents.”
“Y’all be needin’ a little help out here?” a man’s voice called out from behind the Honda.
Elias jerked his head toward the sound of the deep southern drawl and Crystal jumped. Standing in front of a red ’84 Ford F-150 was a tall old black man. A whisp of gray hair framed his bald dome of a head. His kind face was set with a natural warm smile. He wore faded overalls over a light blue long-sleeved shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
“I seen ya chattin’ in front of this here car,” he said, nodding at the Honda as he walked up to them, “and from the smoke comin’ out the front, I s’posed y’all could use a little help.”
Elias and Crystal were both silent, staring at the man in disbelief. Shaking his head as if coming out of a daze, Elias said, “Ah, yeah, my car...I, uh, think she threw a rod.”
“Busted a hole straight through the oil pan, didn’t it?” the man asked.
Elias noded.
“Damnedest thing,” the man said. “Well, I’d be more’n happy to give y’all a lift into town. I think I might know a shop can fix ya on up.”
“That would be great, Mr...?” Elias said extending his hand for a handshake.
“McGrady,” the man said, taking Elias’ hand, “but you can call me Daryl.”
“Thanks a lot Daryl,” Elias said. “I’m Elias Adkins, but you can call me Eli. This is Crystal.” He gestured to Crystal.
Crystal stepped up to Daryl with her hand extended. “Thank you,” she said.
“Much obliged,” Daryl said, taking her hand. “Y’all can hop right on up into the passenger side there. There ought to be enough room for all of us in that cab.”
Elias led Crystal to the passenger side of the truck. He got in first, taking the center spot on the truck’s bench seat. Crystal got in after him and shut the door.
Daryl slid into the driver side after they were in. He closed his door and started the truck.
“I’d ask if you was comfortable,” Daryl said, “but I know this truck ain’t no luxury cruise.”
“It’ll do just fine,” Crystal said.
As Daryl put the truck into gear and steered it onto the highway, Crystal looked at Elias. He returned her gaze.
“Eli,” she said softly, “I’m...”
“It’s okay,” Elias interrupted. Then he smiled. Crystal looked at him quizzically. “I don’t care for them much either.”
Crystal smiled at him then placed her head on his shoulder. “I love you, Eli,” she said.

“I love you too,” Elias replied.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Headin' for a Breakdown, Part 1

“You know, you probably should pull over and take a look under the hood,” Crystal said. “You might not want to wait too long.”
There was a knocking sound coming from the engine block of Elias’ ’97 Honda Accord as he drove down the highway. He didn’t acknowledge Crystal’s warnings. Then the car’s engine revved down before shutting down. Plumes of smoke billowed from the hood of the vehicle, carrying along the stench of burning oil. Elias clicked the button in the middle of the dashboard for the emergency blinkers. Crystal let out an exasperated sigh. As they came to a stop, Crystal turned her red face toward Elias, Elias stared at the road in front of him. After a few minutes he looked at Crystal.
Her blond bangs were plastered to her forehead, courtesy of the hot July day. Her typically smiling ruby red lips were now forced into a bloodless grimace of dissatisfaction. Her blue eyes stared at him incredulously. Elias smiled.
“What the hell are you smiling at?” Crystal asked.
“You,” he said. “You’re so cute when you’re angry.”
“Funny,” she said. There was anger in her voice, but her grimace began to fade.
“Your face is red,” Elias said.
“You think,” Crystal said. “Maybe if you had fixed the air conditioning in your car, or better yet, gotten a new car like I’ve been telling you to do for months, I wouldn’t be so goddamn hot. We might not be stuck here in the first place.” Her voice was rising. Elias turned away from her.
“I told you, I haven’t had the money,” he said. His voice was quiet, little more than a whisper. “When I have the money I’ll buy a new car, if nothing else comes up.”
“Yeah,” Crystal said, “like it always seems to.”
They both faced forward staring at the highway in silence. The cloud of smoke from the engine was beginning to dissipate, but the smell wasn’t.
“We’re going to be late,” Crystal said.
“We weren’t exactly running on schedule to begin with,” Elias said. “Maybe if you took a little less time with the war paint...”
Crystal rounded on him. “Maybe if you gave me fair warning that we had to go to your parents’ house we...” she stopped and sighed. She looked for a while out of the side window. “What are we going to do now?” she asked.
“About my parents or about the car?” Elias asked.
She looked back at him unbelieving.
He had a wry grin on his face.
“I’ll give you three guesses,” she said.
“Fine,” he said, “I’ll see if there’s a checkers board in the trunk.”
Crystal scowled at Elias and he laughed. He reached underneath and to the left of the steering column and pulled the latch to open the Honda’s hood. There was a clicking sound and the hood of the Honda popped up a little. Extra smoke billowed out around the edges of the slightly open hood. He opened the driver side door and stepped out of the car, closing the door behind him. Elias looked over his shoulder to watch the traffic. There was none. The opposite lanes were empty too.
“Goddamn, it’s hot out here,” he said to himself. It was 95 degrees outside that day; inside the car it was 80 degrees, even without any coolant to cool the air coming through the vents. There were no trees on either side of the road to provide shade from the sun. When Elias looked around him as he walked to the front of the car he could only see empty fenced-in cow pastures.
When he reached the front of the car he knelt down and looked underneath. There was a persistent dripping of black liquid from the engine block. A puddle had accumulated under the drip, and a stream led back under the car and up the shoulder of the road from where they came.
“Black gold, Texas tea,” he murmured. He stood back up. “Fuck!” he yelled, kicking the car’s bumper.
Crystal opened up her car door and jumped out of the car. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I think the fucking car threw a rod,” Elias said.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know exactly. It happened to my dad’s car when I was a kid. He said that the car threw a rod and busted a hole in the oil pan. I think that’s what happened here.”
“So now what?” Crystal asked.
“There’s nothing really we can do,” Elias said. “As long as this piece of shit can’t hold oil, it isn’t going anywhere.” Elias gave the car another kick.
“Could we call someone?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said, “if you can find someone to call. We’re still about half an hour out from my parents’, and I don’t really know what’s around here; if there is anything around here.”

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Story Behind "End Up Alone"

The inspiration for “End Up Alone” came from a couple different places. The first thing that inspired this story was a tale I heard from a retired officer about a former Vietnam veteran who chose to live as if he was homeless despite the fact that he was receiving retirement checks from the military and had a very nice apartment on the river. The retired officer I spoke to found out about the veteran when the veteran’s daughter became worried about him when she tried to make contact. After some research the officer found out that he had come across the veteran before and had even seen him harassed by other officers who didn’t know the veteran’s story. I was fairly faithful to the story related to me by the officer in my original draft.

The other thing that inspired the film was driving through Whitefish Bay to drop off my rent check for a crappy place my wife lived in near the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee campus. Whitefish Bay is a fairly affluent suburb of Milwaukee, and my wife and I used to joke that if you lived in Whitefish Bay you had to walk or jog at least twice a day for exercise. The weather on this particular morning was much like it was in the story, and the song “End Up Alone” by Nine Days came on the radio inspiring the title and theme of the story. (Interesting anecdote to the story: At the time that I wrote the story we were living in a townhouse in Whitefish Bay.)

I made the conscious decision to stick to the inner-life of the character, which meant a lack of identity of the main character. In my own personal view, I don’t often think of myself as being male unless something comes up that requires me to think of myself in those terms. Also, in conversation, unless it is required, names aren’t often spoken among people who know each other well. I felt avoiding the main character’s name and identity felt organic, and the result is that you have an intimate knowledge of the character and can relate to them without being bogged down gender and race politics. (At least that was my hope.)

For revisions I decided to cut down on some extraneous exposition and focus more on interactions. First, I felt there wasn’t enough conflict in the original version of the story, so this led to the narrator getting fired from their job. This allowed for interaction with their boss as well as added tension in the story. I also decided to have the narrator actually talk to the homeless man. Since the narrator didn’t seem the type to actually initiate conversations, this seemed like a more organic way to deal with Mike as well as the older cop.

I don’t think I’m done with this story though, I feel there is more that I could do with it to strengthen the concept. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you have something that you would like to see in a future draft, I’d be more than happy to hear it!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

End Up Alone, Revision: Part 4

            I lay in my bed. After the cop left I decided to walk back to my car and take it to Three Lions Pub. There was no one there I knew, and I was glad. I had a few Guiness and a couple shots of Jameson. After I got a decent buzz I decided to go home.

            Here I sit, on my beige sheets in my twin bed looking up at a Marvelous 3 poster with a glass pipe named Luigi in my hand. A little bit of resin is left and I consider lighting it up and smoking it till it gives no more. I kind of wish there was a TV in my room, and I don’t want to go out into the living room and make my roommate think that I can hear what they’re doing in there. A TV: one more thing, right Mike? I laugh. It’s the first laugh I had all day and it takes a while to come down. I think about the security guard and the Scandinavian bimbos and I laugh harder. Then I think of Mike Winters’ story and my former job and I cry. The laughter and tears merge together to form deep heaving sobs in my chest. Luigi drops to the floor unlit and unused as I curl up into a fetal ball on my bed. The last lines of the song I was listening to this morning echo in my head as I drift into an uneasy dizzying sleep: “Why do we all end up alone? Why do we all end up dead, drunk, or stoned?”

Monday, June 9, 2014

End Up Alone, Revision: Part 3

            The elevator makes its way to the lower level rather than the first floor. There’s an exit to the manager’s parking lot that allows me to avoid Mr. It on the way out. Going back to my car isn’t on my mind. Getting away from this building is.
            I turn toward Lake Michigan when I hit the intersection. I’m not used to walking downtown and I don’t really have a plan; a park bench and a view of the lake would be good therapy right now though.
            Nearly three miles later I end up at Veteran’s Park. The least vandalized park bench becomes my consolation prize. The lake doesn’t give much of a show, but it doesn’t need to. I take in the tranquility of the scene. It’s starting to get cooler. A winter coat is sitting in the backseat of my car; I didn’t think I’d need it. There’s a little bit of an ache in my legs from the winter disuse. The feeling offsets the calm of the lake. My mind swirls with thoughts of the future. My elbows rest on my knees and my neck bends so my head can meet my hands.
            “You alright?” a voice asks next to me. I didn’t notice anyone walk up. My face is wet. I wipe away the tears and notice the spit-shined military boots on the ground next to me. Frayed cuffs meet the boots, leading to tattered jeans and a drab stained olive green jacket that hangs past the knees of the jeans. The black man wearing the clothes is balding with a crown of salt and pepper hair. There is a warm smile on his face that makes me force a smile back at him.
            “Yeah, I guess so,” I say. I’m still drying off my face.
            “You don’t look it. Whatsa matter?”
            “I just got fired from my job. Guess I’ll be like you soon enough.”
            His head tilts back and he roars laughter; I almost jump out of my seat. “How you figure?” he asks.
            “You’re homeless, right?”
            “I guess it won’t be long till I’m out on the streets too.”
            “You ain’t going to be out here unless you choose to be.”
            “So you choose to be homeless?”
            “I didn’t at first, but as time wore on I made the choice to stay out here. You learn things when you out here.”
            “Like what?”
            “How to survive. Who you are. When I was workin’ in my nine to five days I can’t say I tried that hard to live, it just happened; out here you gotta scrape to get by, though. It ain’t glamorous, but you ain’t bound to shit neither.”
            “Bound to what?”
            “Stuff. Things. All that you can’t live without, all that you can’t leave behind. You learn real quick that you can. You have to.”
            “I don’t know if I could live like that,” I tell him.
            “Everyone can, if they try.”
            “Hey, hey,” a man’s voice yells. Behind us a young Milwaukee Police Department cop comes jogging down the bike trail toward the bench. “Every day I see you out here, man,” the cop says to the homeless man. He’s stopped running and the homeless man next to me stands up from the bench. “You need to get to a shelter or something. I’m getting tired of seeing you out here, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.” The cop tilts his head toward me.
            “Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
            “Don’t just yessir me, man,” the cop says. “You need to get out of here and stay out of here, you hear me?”
            “Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
            “Now I’m serious,” the cop says. “I don’t want to see you on my beat no more.”
            “What are you doing?” a voice calls from down the trail. Another cop comes lumbering toward us. This cop is older and looks out of breath. He looks like he’s been walking the beat half his life.
            “Seriously,” the younger cop says, “if I see you down here again, me and you are going round and round. I’m not going to be so nice”
            “Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
            “So what you going to do now?” the cop asked.
            “I’m going to find a shelter, double time,” the homeless man says.
            “That’s right,” the cop says. “And don’t let me catch you on my beat again.”
            The homeless man winks at me and hurries away. The older cop walks up to the younger cop.
            “What’s wrong with you?” the older cop asks through a graying walrus mustache. “That the kind of shit they teaching you in the academy these days.”
            “We can’t just let these dudes...” the younger cop begins.
            “What you know about that guy?” the older cop interrupts. When the younger cop doesn’t respond he says, “Jack shit, that’s what. He’s got as much of a right to this park as anyone else walking around here.”
            “But he’s always...” the younger cop says.
            “Just walking around minding his own business,” the older cop interrupts for a second time. “Now if you see him again, you aren’t going to fuck with him, you got that?”
            The younger cop nods and stares down at his boots.
            “Now you go on,” the older cop says. “Look for real shit, I need to catch my breath.”
            The younger cop looks at him ruefully then walks up the bike lane.
            “Do you mind if I have a seat?” the cop asks gesturing to the bench.
             “Sure,” I say. “Your partner’s a real asshole.”
            “Thanks,” he says as he takes a seat. There’s a coffee stain on his MPD jacket, and he’s still breathing heavy. He takes off his hat and wipes his brow. He’s sweating like a stuck pig even though the temp is falling below forty. His gray and black flecked hair is starting to fall below his ears; it’s probably time to get a cut by police standards. “It’s tough work, dealing with a rookie, but my last partner retired a week ago and this new guy is all we got. Doesn’t have a sense of the beat yet.”
            I stare at the ground for a moment. “You seem to know more about that homeless man than he did,” I say. “What didn’t you tell him?”
            The older cop laughs, but the laugh doesn’t meet his eyes. “You don’t walk a beat as long as I have without getting to know the regulars,” he says. There are air quotes around “the regulars.” “I’ve dealt with Mike Winters quite a bit. That’s the guy you was talking to. A couple of years ago we get a call at the precinct that his daughter Alyssa was looking for him. We got a description of him, and it matched Mike. I was on shift and working this beat back then too, so I was tasked with trying to find him, only he hadn’t been this way for quite a while.
            “We ran him through the database, but we couldn’t find anything. No priors, no warrants, nothing. So I put out an All-Points Bulletin for him. It didn’t take long though, I finally saw him walking through the park the next day. I got him and brought him in. Took me a while to get the full story, but it turns out his wife died a few years back. Completely unexpected, and it bankrupted him. He lost everything trying to pay her medical expenses and funeral costs. In the end her final resting place meant more to him than his earthly one. Or so he told me. He was happy to give up everything for her, and in the end he did.”
            “So he’s homeless because of her?” I ask.
            “I don’t know if I’d put it quite like that, he’s homeless because of the system. Furthermore, he’s a goddamn veteran: fought in the Vietnam War. I asked him if he got any retirement checks from the military, but a glitch in the system kept him from getting anything. I did a couple tours in the Navy and offered to help him out since I’m close with the VA, but he told me not to worry about it. Said money just complicates life.”
            “Did you tell his daughter any of this?” I ask.
            “Nope,” he says. “He didn’t want her to know about it, so no one told her. He was lucid, no mental problems far as we could tell; so we gave him her information and cut him loose. I don’t know if he’s talked to her and as far as I’m concerned it’s none of my business. Listen, he’s just a good guy and deserves to be treated like one without people interfering; so I do my part to make sure that happens. I figure there are things my new partner doesn’t need to know just yet though. He’s still green and needs to learn a badge isn’t a right to fuck with people. I don’t want to see him treat anyone that way, not just Mike. And I don’t want him giving Mike special treatment ‘cause I said so. He’s got to learn to treat everyone the same.”
            I sit stunned. I’m not sure how to process the story I just heard. “Damn, that’s...” but the words are lost to me. I can’t find what to say. Mike encompasses my mind.
            “Yeah, it is,” he replies, knowing what I mean. We sit there in silence mulling over the story. He says, “Well, have a good rest of the day. Try not to stay out here too late. We’ll be further on up the park, so there’s no telling if we’ll be in the area to help if you need it.”
            “Yeah,” I say, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The cop gets up from the bench and walks up the bike lane. After a few steps he turns back. “By the way, what were you two talking about before the rookie came up.”
“The shackles of consumerism,” I say.

He furrows his brow as he looks at me. His gaze turns to the ground and then he nods. “Have a good night,” he says, and then he walks away.

Friday, June 6, 2014

End Up Alone, Revision: Part 2

In the parking garage in downtown Milwaukee signs are plastered all over the yellow ticketing kiosks saying the parking rates are increasing effective next week. I tap a button in the center of the kiosk; it spits out a ticket and the yellow stop bar in front of me rises. I take the ticket and drive up the ramp and find a spot.
The guy who parked next to me parked like a sausage. I get out of my car very carefully, and reach back in to grab my audiobook of Stephen King’s It.
            I take the elevator down to the first floor and exit the building onto Jefferson Street. As I cross the street I see a fat dirty gray seagull standing next to a restaurant party shuttle. He ruffles his feathers at me. I don’t think he can fly. “Don’t worry, I’m not flying anywhere either,” I tell him. He waddles away. I take a left and shortly I’m in the arms of work.
            I walk through the glass turnstile into the modest lobby. An elderly Native American man in a blue company security suit sits behind a desk next to the elevators. His face reminds me of that Indian chief with the tear rolling down his face in those anti-littering commercials from the ‘70’s. He sees the security badge hanging from a lanyard around my neck and nods. I hit the button on the elevator and watch for the overhead notification light to flash on.
            “You listen to books?” the security guard asks, pointing to my copy of It.
            “Yeah,” I say. “With school in, I don’t really get a chance to read what I want, so I listen when I can.”
            “I listen to books too,” he says.
            “Oh cool, what are you listening to now?” I ask.
            He holds up a copy of Awaken the Giant Within. I think my polite smile is faltering a little. “Just some Tony Robbins,” he says. This elevator is taking forever.
            “Oh nice,” I say. The facade is falling, but I try to keep up the pretense. “I’m listening to Stephen King’s It.”
            “How do you like It so far?” There’s a big grin on his face.
            “Just starting It today,” I say. The elevator doors open.
            “Well, let me know how It goes,” he says. He looks fit to burst.
            “Will do,” I say and enter the elevator. I hit the second floor and “Close Doors” buttons at once.
            Work is actually quite enjoyable; it’s easy and I’m good at it, but there’s a reason I try to avoid talking to coworkers. During the semester I’m here three days a week and I have to see them when I’m here. In small doses they’re perfectly pleasant people. They don’t need to dispel my fantasy image of them by taking up more of my time in this building. The security guard seemed to be a decent fellow before today.
            The second floor is a sea of cubicles. Mine is at the end of the aisle. I rush down the corridor before more human contact makes me too ill to work the rest of the day. I already don’t feel like staying here, but if I left early I’d still have to pay full price for parking.
            The seat at my desk is comfortable enough to sit numb for a moment. I turn on the computer. There’s a multicolored mini-slinky next to the monitor on my desk; I pick it up and juggle it a little. It’s like my totem. I put the slinky down and reach into a drawer and pull out a set of ear buds and plug them into the computer’s headphone jack. I open the CD tray and pop in the first disc of It.
            “Can I see you in the conference room for a moment?” The ear buds were halfway to my ears when Stacey’s voice interrupts. She’s my manager.
            “Yeah sure,” I say. The ear buds drop to the desk. Stacey leads me to a nearby conference room. She has a thin manila folder in her hand. As she holds the door open, I walk through and pick a seat. She’s not too far behind.
            “Do you know why I called you in here?” she asks as she takes a seat across from me.
            “Not really.”
            “You were thirty minutes late this morning.”
            “Oh, I’m really sorry about that, I was late with rent and I had to take a detour on my way to work this morning to drop it off. I promise it won’t happen again.”
            “How many times have you been late this month?” Her eyes are trained on the manila folder as she opens it.
            “I don’t know.”
            “Seven times. You’ve also called in three times over the past month.”
            “I’m really sorry. It’s been a difficult semester.”
            She looks back up at me. “Things are difficult on our team right now too. With tax time right around the corner we’re seeing an increase in volume; we always do around this time of year. We really needed you present.”
            “I understand that, and I’m really sorry. I’ll step it up, I promise.”
            “I don’t think you understand. That many tardies and that many absences, especially considering your minimal schedule, is beyond company policy.”
            “And I really appreciate you working with me.”

            “I like you, the whole team does. You do a good job and you’re quick, but I can’t go up to bat for you anymore. My boss, Carol, made the final decision. I have no other choice but to let you go.”