Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Waiting Room

Twelve of us, to start: seven women, five men. I don't introduce myself to the others, nor they to me. There is a powerful "eye on the prize" mentality cocooning me from them, a refusal to acknowledge that we are in this situation together. Maybe all of us understand this more than we are willing to admit. Avoiding eye contact, we uncomfortably shift our bodies on the prefabricated, sterile furniture, all gathered here in a waiting room that is too cold.

I try to imagine Alexandra here with me, wondering where she is right now. Instinctively, I reach for my phone, but it is gone. Electronic devices are not allowed in this room; they were all taken from us before we were allowed inside. There isn't a TV or even any magazines around to take our minds off of the wait. I wonder if this is the test.

We endure over an hour of nonchalant shivering before a door - one I hadn't noticed the entire time I'd been sitting here - slides open and sullen young man walks in. The man is accompanied by two armed guards. The mood shifts when we see handguns are now a part of the equation. I am here for the money they advertised, nothing more. I hope that this is also the case with my fellow test subjects. The man says his name is Dr. Cole, but nobody seems interested in what he calls himself. He removes a torn piece of paper from his pocket and reads three names. Two women and a man stand up.

Dr. Cole, his first group of volunteers, and the two guards exit through the hidden door.

More time passes, but now I have a blossoming imagination to keep me company. I wonder where the first group has gone, what they are doing. The post on the website said that we'd be paid at least once for the day, but possibly twice. It said the first part would be a "determining evaluation", which, at the time, sounded like a mental or physical test. But now I feel less certain. Some of these people have guns. I close my eyes, remembering my sweet Alexandra's parting words. Like nothing else, I wish that I had understood the meaning behind them at the time, that the true message would have found me then.

"If Burger King is willing to pay you that much to try a new chicken sandwich, you know it's probably not real chicken in it, right?"

The hidden door slides open again and Dr. Cole returns with one of the guards. The other guard and the first group of test subjects are nowhere to be seen. Someone has given the remaining guard a bloody nose; the front of his shirt is now ripped. He looks nervous, as does Dr. Cole, who shakily retrieves the torn paper from his pocket. The paper is spotted with a scarlet substance that I try my best to ignore. Dr. Cole clears his throat and calls out only one name this time. Mine.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas at Kendig's

I'm not going to completely blame the holiday season for everything that happened on Gilda Road during Christmas Eve this year, but I can't stress enough how absolutely none of the stuff that went down would have happened if the calendar had read "March 24th" instead of "December 24th", I can tell you that. I don't even really celebrate Christmas, not in the way people do on TV anyway. I'm not talking about religious affiliation so much as I mean opening presents under a big, decorated tree with the family at 7am, right before heading to grandma's house to carve up a plump goose, everyone sweating profusely under thick wool sweaters as Bing Crosby goes on and on about how cold it is.

No, I don't have a family - well, other than the gigantic one back home in Colorado. But that meant that there were a thousand miles between the Miggins clan and my life in Peoria - not that the months leading up to Christmas this year could have been called much of a life. I moved to Illinois for engineering work at a very well-known machinery company that's named after a butterfly larva, I think you know which one. I had three years there of not knowing how good I had it before I got laid off and had to re-figure things out. I held out hope for another engineering spot to open up. No such luck. And nothing comparable to my old job even existed back in my hometown, so I was pretty much stuck. Nothing came along except a few odd jobs here and there, along with a half-decent gig tending the bar down at Kendig's.

I'll get back to Kendig's in a minute, but here's where I have to say that I get the whole Spirit of Christmas thing, my whole circle of friends did too (yes, I have friends). We weren't into buying each other big, expensive gifts or traveling to Jamaica to do the coconut rum, anti-Bing Crosby thing. And the Miggins family wasn't checking their mailboxes for so much as a postcard of a reindeer from me; they already knew I cared. All of this is to say that money was as close to not being a concern as it could be, but I was still concerned about it all the same. You see, Christmastime is a time to be to be with friends, and that takes money: money for food and events if the group goes out, money for a decent bottle of wine (or three) if the group stays in. It's hard to see a friend without dropping thirty bucks in some way or another.

Okay, mention of money brings me back to Kendig's. I had spent a good amount of time there when I still had my cushy engineering gig. It was one of those dive places that charged too much for cheap beer, but less than half of what every other bar charged for good whiskey. I had gotten to know the owner, Sammy Kendig, pretty well back in those days. I'd play around and show him and his staff how to make High Plains drinks from my college days, crazy cocktails like Red Hot Jolly Green Giants or Catsup Bombs (never "Ketchup"). When Sammy heard I was out of work, he let me tend the bar or work the door so that I could make rent during especially dry months.

His generosity should be evidence plenty, but I can't stress enough that Sammy really was just a cool guy and the greatest boss a person could want. He was a big, funny dude that all of Peoria seemed to know and love. He had a way of settling disputes and calming down drunks before they got out of hand - and you'd better believe that takes serious skill when the customer in question is a blitzed-out debutante who suddenly decides she's Muhammad Ali for the night. We all loved Sammy. We'd ask him "how high" before he'd even have to tell us to jump. Hell, I would have asked the same question if he'd told me to grow taller.

Well, Christmas was getting closer and Sammy had spread Kendig's staff schedule a little thin when it came to doling out the good weekend night shifts. It had been a hard year for many people in the Kendig's circle of friends, and Sammy's big heart had overcrowded his proverbial coattails. He was nice enough to have me on as a backup bartender one Saturday evening early in the month, but a flash flood kept the place cleared out. I was cut by nine o'clock on my only weekend shift for the entire month of December. Just as I had started to contemplate how long I could live out of my car without freezing to death, Sammy offered me another opportunity.

"Hey, Miggins." It was morning on the day before Christmas Eve and Sammy had called me at home. I was still in bed, "bed" being a terrible futon in my circumstance.

"What's going on, Sammy?" I prayed that he needed a bartender that night, or any night that week. Christmas was a busy time for bars, and people out reveling tended to be extra generous during the holidays, especially to those on the service side of merriment.

"I know you're looking for some extra cash this month."

"Yeah..."

"Well, I've got kind of an odd job for you, if you think you're up for it." He kind of cleared his throat as though he had more to add. A few seconds went by. "So what do you think?" he asked me.

"What do I..." I laughed a little. "Look, I'm not in any position to say no, but you do have to actually tell me what it is before I say 'yes', you know?"

"Oh, right. Sorry." Sammy obviously hadn't had his morning carafe of coffee yet. "Do you know Lucas Wellesbourne?"

The name sent a shiver down my back. I knew who Wellesbourne was, everybody did. But I couldn't imagine Sammy having anything to do with that old crankwad. If Sammy Kendig had a polar opposite, it would have to be Lucas Wellesbourne, Peoria's greatest villain. I hated him before I met him, just from the stories that people would tell me about him. He was the disgusting, rich, old miser that ruined communities as he told the people that lived there how lucky they were to have him. There was one night a couple of summers prior that one of Wellesbourne's goons had pushed me up against a storefront window for accidentally sitting on the old jerk's car. The confrontation was all I needed to confirm the rumors about old man Wellesbourne. I assumed that the next words out of Sammy's mouth would be that somebody wanted him assassinated, which was a line I couldn't imagine crossing...except maybe for nasty, old Lucas Wellesbourne.

"Sure, I know him. I met one of his thugs one night after I leaned on his car."

"That sounds about right. Well, Mr. Wellesbourne has a job for you."

"Oh, Mr. Wellesbourne has a job? For meeee?" My mocking tone was not lost on Sammy.

"Look, I know he's a pretty lousy individual, but me and him go back a long time. Pretty much my whole life. My dad used to be partners with him, back before Wellesbourne Properties bought up half of downtown."

"I never knew about that," I said. It was true, though I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. That brand of boozy confessional was more expected in a place like The Last Hurrah over in Northpoint Plaza, but not at Kendig's. And certainly not courtesy of Sammy Kendig himself.

"Yeah, I don't like to talk about it much. Dad died around the time that Wellesbourne started his reign of terror on the poorer neighborhoods. Look, I don't have time to get into this."

I could tell that Sammy was frustrated to have to do anything on the old bastard's behalf. That let me know that Sammy wasn't being coerced; he was probably just trying to help me out.

"Okay, so what's the job?" I asked.

Sammy explained to me that the job was just for Christmas Eve. It was more or less a security detail, but it had to be super secret for some reason. I guess that's why Wellesbourne couldn't just get a rent-a-cop or something. It went against every fiber of my being, but I needed the money, I really needed the money. I said yes.

"I'll do it. I don't know how I'm going to restrain myself from spitting in his face when I see the old jerk again though."

"Oh, that reminds me," Sammy said. "You're gonna need to shave, comb your hair, and wear a suit. And, before you ask, I'm not joking."

"C'mon, man."

"Hey, money's money, right?" And with that, the call was over.

"Thanks, Sammy," I said to my mostly empty studio apartment.

The next day, I borrowed a suit from a friend in exchange for three piano lessons in January. I'd only had three lessons myself back in middle school, but I figured I could use YouTube to refresh me a bit and wing it from there.

At 5:45 that night, I hopped in my car and headed to Wellesbourne Estate.

Before I could get to the house, I had to get into the neighborhood, a row of especially giant mansions on Gilda Road. There was a guard posted in a small booth next to the main gate, a stern-looking woman with a pony tail and a forced cheery smile. She was wearing a shiny elf hat with little ornaments lining the brim, but she quickly removed the festive hat once I pulled up, and her face instantly dropped the holly jolly routine. I suppose my sun-faded, 10 year old Honda wasn't very "Gilda Road" and therefore not deserving of any additional holiday cheer.

The guard stepped out of the booth and peered into my car like somebody had handed her a carton of eggs and asked her to guess which one was rotten.

After a moment, "Name, please."

"Yeah, sure. I'm Stan Miggins."

"Name of the resident, please."

"Oh, right. Um, Lucas Wellesbourne?"

The guard looked at me as if I'd asked her for a lift to the airport. I swished my mouth from side to side, as though that were a normal thing that people did. After a tense moment, she went back into the gate booth and made a call. She didn't come back out again after she apparently got the confirmation that she needed. The gate opened and the stony woman waved me inside.

The houses along Gilda Road would have been impressive any time of year, but the holiday season had obviously spurred the owners into some weird kind of decoration competition. There were lights everywhere, along with blankets of fake snow, a forest of Christmas trees, and two separate Santa villages. A gingerbread house stood prominent, as big as a tool shed, though probably not edible. This was all very nice, though the lack of people wandering around made it clear that nobody could get past security into the neighborhood to enjoy it.

I slowly continued driving down the block. I drove past a man dressed like Santa that was walking from one yard to the another, probably bored out of his mind without anybody around to sit on his lap or tug at his beard. I honked my horn to try to wish him a Merry Christmas, but he took one look at my sad car and kept walking. Apparently even lonely Santas on Gilda Road were stuck-up snobs.

I continued down the block to the Wellesbourne house, which was unsurprisingly at the very end of the street. In stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, Wellesbourne's house didn't have a lick of decorations on it, not so much as a wreath on the door. The effect was more than a little creepy, since it made his house look like this strange, dark corner on the edge of a galaxy of lights.

I pulled up to the curb and, buttoning up my snug, secondhand jacket, quickly made my way to the colossal front door of the devil's lair.

None other than Sammy Kendig himself swung the door open to greet me. My reaction lacked nonchalance.

"What the freakin' hell, dude?"

"Shut up, pay attention, and be cool," Sammy hissed at me, the words of warning lingering harsh under his breath. Then loudly he exclaimed, "Good evening, Mr. Miggins. I trust you found the estate without issue."

It's here that I have to say that I thought Sammy was a great guy and all, but he was far from my closest friend. But this act? He was surely playing a part, but I couldn't figure out why. And that scared me. Every fiber in my being told me that things were about to get weird - and no doubt illegal. I really didn't want to end up in jail, especially on Christmas Eve. But Sammy's eyes begged me to play this part opposite him, and I could only secretly wonder why it was laid on me without rehearsal.

"Sure. Yeah, without issue," I exclaimed loud enough to reach any eavesdropping ears. Sammy then ushered me into the dark recesses of the Wellesbourne estate.

I expected that Sammy would take me to some cavernous room with a roaring fireplace, sparse decorations, with wicked, old Lucas Wellesbourne sitting in the room's lone decoration, a sinister arm chair with a too-tall back. He would be cradling a glass of sherry in one of his hands, plotting his next move against James Bond.

But instead of all that, Sammy took me to a cozy kitchen where a man who looked like a 1950's grandpa from a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with sweater vest and bow-tie. It was Lucas Wellesbourne, but not as I had imagined him. This version of Peoria's resident Citizen Kane was happily stirring a pot of hearty soup over a gas stove top.

"Ah, you must be My Man Miggins!" he exclaimed upon seeing me enter the room. "Care for some tomato soup?" He pronounced 'tomato' in the faux-classy way, but it was clear that he was doing it in the dad joke kind of way.

"Oh, no thanks," I said, suddenly feeling like a bit player in a Hallmark movie. Wellesbourne then went on to tell me the soup recipe's backstory, how it was passed down from his great grandmother, Claire, whom (he explained proudly to me and Sammy) had served as inspiration for the character of "Clara Dawes" in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers before moving to Illinois to start a family. Two minutes later, the three of us stood around Wellesbourne's kitchen island bar, each of us enjoying a bowl of hearty tomato soup.

After washing the dishes and placing the leftover soup in a reused plastic container that had once housed sandwich meat, Wellesbourne excused himself to finish readying himself for some kind of party, leaving me and Sammy alone.

"Okay, this is really weird, Sammy." I was sure to keep my voice low, though loud enough for Sammy to gauge my indignation. "Are you like an undercover butler or something?"

"No, I'm here for just tonight, same as you. Wellesbourne gives all of his normal guys the week of Christmas off and hires temps at double the wages."

"Huh. You'd think that the regular staff would jump at that and stay on for the extra cash."

"No need, not with the Christmas bonuses he gives them each year." Sammy suddenly seemed impatient. "We're getting off track here."

"Right, right. So, what's the deal for tonight?" I asked.

"Well, I'm kind of like an assistant, so I'm going with Mr. W to some party downtown. You've got another job."

Rather than tell me, Sammy beckoned me into a hallway and down to a closed door that had a numerical security pad next to it. He slowly tapped his nose twice - some sort of signal that I swear I had never seen him do before - then led me back to the kitchen.

"Okay, what was that?" I asked once we had returned.

Sammy rolled his eyes like I was the stupidest man alive. He began to explain, "Okay-"

Just then Wellesbourne returned. Sammy took his hand off of my shoulder and straightened his posture. The old man was now wearing an expensive suit and a tie with little candy canes on it. This was the Lucas Wellesbourne that I had seen in the papers and 10 o'clock news - minus the candy cane tie. Sammy shot me a 'keep quiet' look.

"Okay, I guess we're just about ready. All set, Samuel?"

'Samuel' and 'Mr. W' were two forms of two names I never wanted to hear again after that night. Sammy nodded to Wellesbourne who looked at me and said, "Have you met Juniper yet?"

That's how I found out I wasn't hired for the night to look after Wellesbourne estate or some secret thing locked behind a locked door. Wellesbourne took me into a small screening room that housed a library of old movies on DVD to go with the big screen on the wall. In the corner, a big wolfish-looking creature lazed on a giant pillow that was probably softer than my bed.

"Now, Juniper is part Husky, part Border Collie," Wellesbourne explained to me. "Some would call her a Bordsky, but I just call her the Big Boss. She loves this room, so you can usually find her in here watching old war films. I don't know why, but Juniper adores the sound of artillery fire for some reason."

I turned to Sammy, but got nothing in return. Wellesbourne didn't seem to notice and continued with Juniper's odd introduction.

"She's a friendly dog for the most part, but she suffers from a bit of separation anxiety when she's alone, so I need someone to hang back when I'm away. Someone that understands her mentality. Samuel says you are among the best in Peoria."

He looked at me as though this information should have triggered a response.

"Oh, yeah. Totally," I said. "So, is there an emergency numbers that I can call if there's a...well, emergency?"

Wellesbourne looked displeased by my question. He then turned to Sammy and nodded.

Sammy cleared his throat and began. "Mr. Wellesbourne asks that you do not try to contact him this evening, not under any circumstances. If you do try to contact him, consider your employment terminated immediately and, should Juniper come to any harm as a result of your actions, you will be investigated for purposeful harm to Mr. Wellesbourne."

Wellesbourne tried to shake off the seriousness of Sammy's warning with a bashful smile, casting it away with his hand still at his side. "Sorry that sounds so executive. It's just that I'm a very busy person, even at social functions. I'd hate to miss an important call and leave Juniper in peril. Please continue, Samuel."

"If you are in need of advisement," Sammy said, handing me a card with nine numbers on it. "Please call this number and ask for Mr. Trundle. He is Juniper's regular handler and can be summoned for emergency purposes."

"I'd rather you didn't, though," Wellesbourne interjected. "Dan Trundle will be with his family this evening and it'll cost a small fortune in overtime pay to summon him during his vacation. Plus, Juniper has been fine all week, so there are absolutely no concerns on my part."

As Sammy gave me more instructions by rote about the dog's diet and playtime regime, Wellesbourne said his goodbyes to his prized pet. Juniper responded by flopping her tail against the big pillow, though her head remained on its fluffy perch. The old man and Sammy began to walk toward the front door, but I managed to grab Sammy by the arm as Wellesbourne left to retrieve his overcoat from another room.

"Sammy..."

He gritted his teeth and very lowly said to me, "You would have said 'no' if you knew everything. Trust me. You'll figure out what's going on soon enough."

Wellesbourne returned, ready for his party, and Sammy got the door for him. With a cheery wave and a jarringly loud "Merry Christmas!" the old man took his exit with Sammy, leaving me and Juniper to the great, dark house on Gilda Road.

I stepped back into the movie room where Juniper still lay upon her pillow.

"I think that 'Merry Christmas' was more for you than me," I told her. She looked at me without moving her head. I figured that if she liked war movies, then I'd be doing a good thing to turn one on for her. I found the cache of remotes by the large leather couch, but I couldn't figure out the controls. I was just about to use my phone to find a video of somebody playing Call of Duty or something when I heard a loud crash come from the kitchen.

"Did you hear that," I asked the dog. She gave no response, not even a raised ear. "Not much of a guard dog, are you, girl?" Not being a character in a horror movie, I went to go investigate the loud noise.

No, I wouldn't call that night a horror movie, but I hadn't realized it at that point that I was definitely in a supernatural tale.

I walked into the kitchen and found the empty pot that Wellesbourne had used to cook the tomato soup laying on the ground between the kitchen island and the oven. I picked it up and said "tomato" to the empty room for no reason at all, pronouncing it like Wellesbourne had earlier. I laughed a bit and put the pot back on the drying rack.

Behind me, I heard the sound of chains being rattled. I froze in terror.

"Wellesbourne..." The voice sounded dusty and cracked, like weathered tree bark. "Wellesbourne, you must change your ways."

I couldn't speak. I slowly turned around and saw a what looked like a person standing behind the kitchen island, hovering and emitting a blue-green glow. The vision was definitely in the form of a man, probably in his mid-fifties, dressed in a suit not unlike the one Wellesbourne had worn earlier - again, minus the candy cane tie. Though the thing appeared to be a real person, the hovering and glowing tipped its hand as actually being a ghost. Chains were wrapped all around it, which also seemed weird.

It continued in its low, crumbling timbre. "You must learn the true meaning of Compassion and of Empathy. You must learn before it is too late, Wellesbourne."

I found my voice. "I...I'm not Wellesbourne," I told the ghost.

"What!" it exclaimed, glowering at me with all its might.

"I'm not Lucas Wellesbourne. I promise."

It glowered at me for a moment longer, then relaxed its gaze.

"No, you're not, are you?" it said.

"Sorry." I couldn't think of anything else to add, so I said it again. "I'm sorry."

"Well..." The ghost looked around, then disappeared. I relaxed a bit, but then it returned seconds later. "Well, where is he? Where is Lucas Wellesbourne?"

"Out at a party."

"Out at a party!" The ghost seemed mad. "That's not where he's supposed to be!"

"Again, I'm sorry."

Sounds of gunfire erupted from elsewhere in the house. Both the ghost and I peered into the hallway to locate the source.

I turned to the ghost and said, "Sorry, I have to check on that."

I soon found that the noise was coming from the screening room. I ran in and saw that a war movie, there in all of its black and white glory, was indeed playing on the big movie screen. Juniper laid as she had before, though her eyes were cast toward the film and her tail thumped happily.

"How did you do that?" I asked her. The ghost appeared behind me.

"What's going on in here?" it asked.

"Well, the dog likes war movies and I guess she knows how to turn them on herself. Smart dog."

The ghost floated closer to the dog, inspecting her.

"She doesn't seem to be bothered by the noise."

"Her name is Juniper," I said, trying to sound like we were all just having a casual evening. "No, Wellesbourne said she likes it."

"Wellesbourne!" It suddenly remembered the mission. The ghostly blue-green color glowed warmer with the memory of its target. "Where do I find Wellesbourne?"

I waved my hands a bit to try and calm the ghost down. "Believe me, I wish I could tell you. I don't even really work here. My friend Sammy Kendig set this up, but it's been weird since..."

The ghost held up a single finger and floated toward me, stopping inches away from my face. "Did you say Sammy Kendig?"

"Yeah, Sammy Kendig. Owns Kendig's Bar down on Niagara Street?"

The ghost looked mournful. "That is my son."

"Your...?" I sat on the leather couch. "Whoa."

The ghost hovered at the edge of the couch, fiddled with the dangling chains around its midsection a bit.

"Yeah." The ghost watched the screen as a few bombs drop onto running soldiers for a bit, then continued. "I used to work with Lucas Wellesbourne, bore witness as greed began to transform him into a monster, but I did nothing to stop the process. The promise of a substantial future and pervasive legacy had gripped me, consumed my every thought. My own greed laid out the plans that ultimately created Wellesbourne's vast fortune, but I didn't live to share in the bounty. That simple irony, however, was lost on my otherworldly handlers. The price of my deeds had sealed my fate all the same; my actions had damned me to an afterlife of regret. On this eve, I am sent to perhaps save Wellesbourne from his avaricious ways and maybe spare a part of my soul that wears these chains as a constant reminder to the burden on my everlasting soul."

The ghost looked to me, just as a tank exploded in the movie.

"But this stuff with my son is heavy."

I nodded my head and tried to be respectful, even though I was still very shaken up by being haunted for the first time in my life. Plus the loud movie wasn't helping.

"I'm Jason Kendig, by the way," the ghost told me. The cloudy nature of its physical form couldn't mask its miserable expression. Being a ghost must be kind of a sad life, especially during the holiday season.

"Stan Miggins. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah."

With that, the ghost rose to the top of the screening room and disappeared through the ceiling.

I caught my breath a bit after it was gone, though my head felt hot and sweaty. I retreated to another room of the house, leaving Juniper to her war movies. Finding some sort of study, I collapsed into the most comfortable random chair I'd ever sat in outside of a furniture store. Rich people sure could afford nice stuff. I contemplated calling Sammy to tell him about his dad, even though I took the warning about getting automatically fired to extend to Sammy's phone as well. It might sound crazy now, but I knew I still wanted the money after that night was all over.

Then it hit me. Sammy knew that this would happen! And the next step would likely include that locked room that he'd shown me while Wellesbourne was getting dressed.

I ran down the hall to the security door. Once I got there, I waited for some sort of sign that I was in the right spot. I thought maybe a mystical light would shine or the door would turn a different color and open, but nothing happened. I looked at the keypad and thought maybe something had given me clues earlier to figure out the code, but nothing occurred to me. I tried out a few series of numbers but got a red light as a response from each of them.

The only solution I could come up with at that point twisted up my guts to even think about, but I had to give it a try.

"Um, Mr. Kendig?" Nothing. "I could use your help here, I think! Mr. K.?"

Silence, then suddenly:

"What do you want, Miggins?" The blue-green glow flickered behind me, causing my toes to curl.

"Um, okay," I sputtered. "So, your son was here earlier and he showed me this door."

Mr. Kendig's ghost blankly stared at me. "And...?" he finally asked.

"Well, that's it. He just showed me the door. I assumed I was supposed to get inside of it, but I can't."

"Okay. Great story." The ghost began to leave.

"Wait! I think Sammy knew that you would come here tonight and maybe help me get into this room."

"What makes you think that?"

I thought for a moment. "I guess I don't have a reason, but it makes sense, right? The door, the dog, the ghost...I mean, you?"

"You're not very smart, are you?"

I shrugged. "Jury's out. Can you help me?"

The spirit sighed and gathered its spectral chains off of the floor. It then began to spin around, and continued spinning until somehow its form began to elongate and narrow, becoming as thin as a piano wire. The spirit then launched itself into the keypad, which soon began to glow the same bright blue-green hue of the ghost. Sparks flew, some mechanism inside the lock exploded, and the closed door creaked open.

"Thank you, spirit," I told Kendig as I walked into the windowless room. It was some sort of office. Kendig hovered near me as I turned on a light and began to look around. There were a few file cabinets and a desk littered with documents that I could really understand.

Then I saw it, there in the center of the room. It was a scale model of downtown Peoria, pretty hard to miss.

"Oh, neat," I exclaimed as I went for a closer look.

"What is that?" the ghost asked, now hovering above the model.

"It's Peoria," I said. "Well, the downtown area anyway."

"I don't recognize it."

"Oh, yeah. Well, it's probably a little different than when you were...you know."

"Yes, when I was alive."

"Yeah. Let me show you." I pointed out a few additions that had been made to the city since his time, things like the Riverfront Market and the Civic Center.

"Well, I recognize those. Those were both there when I was alive."

"Ah. Okay." I felt like an idiot for not knowing the dates for things. Then I noticed something. "Hey, everything between Niagara and Main is different. I don't see even Kendig's on here."

Seeing it clearly, the ghost and I looked to each other, like detectives finding a crucial clue. The ah-ha moment was cut short, however, as elsewhere in the house, something heavy crashed through something else that sounded even heavier. Yelling and the clangs of stuff being smashed started very soon after.

"Security breach! Freeze!" I didn't recognize the voices, but they sounded authoritative. I dove underneath the scale model's table. Kendig disappeared through the wall to inspect the commotion. He soon reported back to me.

"It looks like the police were summoned when you incorrectly entered the code for this room. The sounds of the war movie and fact that no lights were on outside gave them cause to break down the front door."

"Oh, freakin' hell," I said, the hope of any pay for the night detonating in my mind.

Then fits of barking erupted from near the screening room. The ghost vanished again. I slowly crawled out from underneath the table. I figured that if the dog was now involved, then there would be no escaping some form of punishment.

Kendig returned.

"It appears that a massive bout of separation anxiety has caused dear Juniper to lash out at several officers, which caused them to retaliate with tear gas. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, the dog has escaped through the crashed front door into the neighborhood."

"Okay, I don't need any more details, Mr. Kendig," I said, suddenly feeling quite dispirited. "I think I'd rather just be surprised from here on out."

I walked out of the room and through a cloud of smoke that had consumed the entire floor. My eyes watered as I passed a policeman that had lost consciousness during all the commotion. I grabbed him by the arm and tried to drag him out, but the tear gas and a general lack of muscles soon caused me to leave him only a couple of feet from where I'd found him. Making my way past several broken pieces of furniture and the demolished front door, I walked into the yard and was immediately tackled by the security guard I'd met earlier. She had obviously been in a rush to help out since she was still wearing her shiny elf hat, the little ornaments jingling festively along the brim.

The guard soon had my neck in a unyielding hold that soon caused spots to dance before my eyes, like sugarplums falling onto freshly-driven snow.

As I began to pass out, I looked out into the neighborhood and saw that the world's loneliest Santa Claus was scared out of his mind, trying to climb up onto the roof of that tool shed gingerbread house. I swore that the King of the Elves was screaming for Rudolph to save him, but he might have just been shouting "roof" and "dog" to the police that were running to and fro in all the chaos. Juniper was there, snarling and snapping at poor Santa's heels all the while. As the oxygen was cut off from my brain and darkness clouded the world, I concluded that Juniper was more of a guard dog than I have given her credit for. Or perhaps all those war movies had instilled something in her that a lifetime of luxury couldn't suppress.

During the minute or so that I was knocked out, I had a weird, short dream set to that Nutcracker music. But this story is long enough without a Russian ballet break, so I'll get on with it. Regardless, I was wide awake and firmly back in the Land of the Conscious throughout my subsequent arrest and booking.

In a weird bit of holiday irony, I ended up sharing a jail cell with old Saint Nick himself. It turned out that our lonely Santa from Gilda Road was actually a dangerous criminal that had been going house-to-house robbing the people inside. While I was dog-sitting and entertaining a ghost, most of the neighbors were gagged and tied to chairs, trying their best to call for help. Juniper was a hero dog after all!

"I had cased that block for months," Santa confided to me and a few other Christmas Eve undesirables. Luckily, he didn't seem to recognize me as the guy that had honked at him, or accidentally let the dog loose to corner him. "I scaled the gate, took those snoots down one-by-one, all by myself. But I knew not to go after Wellesbourne's place, and all because of that freakin' mutt."

"I hear she was raised on nothing but war movies," I opined. The other Christmas Eve jailbirds lifted their eyebrows in appreciation.

"That doesn't surprise me," Santa said, pulling off his red hat and scratching his head. "I was raised on biker movies myself."

I think that Juniper's opportunity for heroism may have been why Lucas Wellesbourne himself showed up to the police station and dropped all the charges against me. He waited for me at one of the officer's desks in the bullpen area. Sammy was nowhere to be seen, but I wasn't sure yet if that meant he'd gone undetected.

I apologized to Wellesbourne for all the destruction and chaos that I'd caused. He accepted, and we walked out of the station together. It was now Christmas morning. The festive lights and ornaments that lined the street along the front of the police station actually made me feel cheerier, despite my present circumstances and company.

"The extraordinary thing, Mr. Miggins, is that you chose to not use this to enter my private office." With that, he removed from his jacket pocket the card that Sammy had given me for the dog expert. "This isn't Mr. Trundle's phone number. It appears as though Samuel tried to slip you my security code undetected."

I felt like an idiot, but I was pretty used to the sensation by then. I had ransacked my brain for something that was sitting in my pocket the whole time. The card had been just given to me by the person I was abetting seconds before he left the soon-to-be crime scene. Unlike Santa, I did not see a future in crime for myself.

"How did you get that?" I asked, wondering how Wellesbourne could have removed it from the personal possessions I'd had to turn over to the police. In response to my question, he only lifted an eyebrow to tell me what I already knew, that the cops here would have given Lucas Wellesbourne anything he asked. He ran Peoria, and not secretly.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'm not angry with you and certainly not with Samuel. It's no secret that I've wanted to develop the land surrounding his bar. I'm sure hard evidence would have caused some stir of public outcry, perhaps blocking my legal advances."

"Damn straight," I said.

"But what you probably didn't surmise from the model in my office is that I plan to include all of the businesses in the new development, and pay them handsomely in the process."

"I guess I did not surmise that, no."

"No, it's something that I've been meaning to bring up with Samuel for a few months, but when he approached me for work as my temporary assistant this year, I thought perhaps he would have jumped at the opportunity. I was just about to tell him about his good fortune when the party's host alerted me that the police were storming my house, breaking my property, setting off artillery, and let out poor, sweet Juniper."

"Sorry," I said, apologizing once again to a man I thought I hated.

"I trust that you met Samuel's father this evening?"

The shock of that question hit my face quick. "How did you know?" I asked.

"Because Jason Kendig has appeared to me on Christmas Eve every year for the past twelve years."

At that moment, a long, black car pulled up in front of us. Wellesbourne offered me a ride to my car. I I accepted and, along the way, he told me about the first Christmas Eve that the elder Kendig had visited him, the state of his life at that time, the unending greed that had consumed him before he was beset to change his ways.

"And I listened to his warning. Or, I guess I tried to listen. It was very easy to be a perfectly good person that first week, just after having those damned chains rattled in my face. But then it was the new year and business continued. Hard choices had to be made. Then Kendig appeared to me again that next Christmas, a real stickler for perfection. And so I tried my best again to do better, but then somebody was caught stealing from the company in March and the board forced me to fire him."

Wellesbourne shrugged and continued. "I don't know, maybe he had a sick kid or something that I didn't know about? It counted against me though, I know that much." He sighed.

"I guess it gets tricky," I offered him, deciding to not bring up the hired goons, the indulgent mansion without any Christmas decorations, and the poorer neighborhoods of Peoria that Wellesbourne had legitimately played a part in destroying.

"You're damn right it gets tricky," he said. "And then the spirit appeared again that next Christmas, and again and again, each time forgetting the previous year's progress. It was like I was as bad as I always was, which created a small case of contempt on my part, I'll admit it."

I noticed that we weren't heading back to Gilda Road, and my sudden nervousness must have been apparent.

"Relax, I'm not taking you somewhere to be 'taken care of' or anything like that. I may be visited by a ghost every Christmas Eve, but I'm not a madman."

The car pulled up to Kendig's Bar. Wellesbourne smiled at me and said he could use a drink. He held the door open for me and I walked into my home away from home. The place was as festive as I'd ever seen it, which meant there were a few more lights than usual and some mistletoe dangling above the liquor bottles behind the bar. It was still before noon (and Christmas morning), so only a couple of hardcore regulars were there. Sammy was the only one working, washing glasses left over from the previous night.

Wellesbourne leaned in and said to me low enough for Sammy not to hear, "Now, let's find something besides ghosts to talk about, Mr. Miggins. The first round is on me."

Sammy was beyond concerned at first, seeing me and Wellesbourne there, but the old man soon let him know that all was forgiven. Most importantly, Juniper was safe and sound, resting at home to the sounds of Casualties of War. The three of us drank ale. Sammy brought out a cheese plate as Wellesbourne went over his design to incorporate Kendig's into a new plan he had for the neighborhood. Sammy fought hard against it, but he was listening and they were discussing it like real people, so that's something.

For my part, I was starving after a long night in jail, so my concentration was mainly on the cheese tray. After stuffing my face for a few minutes, I wandered over to the jukebox and found a Bing Crosby song on the menu. It wasn't one of his Christmas tunes, but it didn't matter. I was with an old friend and maybe (but not probably) a new one, each of them reaching out and trying to do better. I thought about how I wanted to do better too. After all, the afterlife was apparently real, and holy heck did I need to get my act together.

Okay, that's pretty much the end, but here's one last thing. Then maybe you can tell me what you did over the holidays.

After we left Kendig's, Wellesbourne delivered on his promise to bring me back to my car. After a too loud "Merry Christmas", he handed me a generous check for that previous night's work (especially generous considering the circumstances). With the payment, Wellesbourne included a small gift that I immediately unwrapped as soon as I was back behind the wheel of my old, collapsing Honda.

The present was a used copy of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, the book that Wellesbourne's grandmother was supposedly in. Thumbing through it, the story really didn't look like my kind of thing. I'm not much of a reader, to tell you the truth, but I decided I'd give it a try - you know, in the spirit of trying to do better.

As I began to drive away from Wellesbourne's home, I could hear another big, loud war movie playing inside the screening room for Juniper. The gunfire and falling bombs were clear as a bell, even over the loud rattle of my car's engine. I couldn't stop smiling during the whole drive home, because I could feel something, or maybe someone from far away, telling me that it was going to be a very good Christmas.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Surprisingly Felt

Having espied it a hundred times that morning, Amelia didn’t need to look at the clock on the wall in front of her desk again. She did it again out of spite though. It was almost noon and Morris still hadn’t arrived at work. Amelia wasn’t angry, livid, furious, or mad; she was holding back those emotions for when Morris could witness each of them in person.

They had worked together as account managers at Voguish for several years, repping local businesses for the small Rapid City marketing company and coordinating with South Dakotan vendors for quick and dirty advertising, mainly online. However Amelia couldn’t help but notice that Morris had been showing less and less interest in his job since Stanley got promoted to Senior Manager, a position warranting capitalization only by the most strident of corporate mentation.

It was to Stanley that Amelia had been reporting on Morris’s whereabouts all morning, and to Stanley that she had just about run out of fake reasons for why Morris wasn't at his desk.

“Oh, is he gone again? I hadn’t noticed.” Amelia said, pretending to file something in an overstuffed cabinet. She stood up and gazed over the partition that separated her work space from Morris's, pretending to be surprised that he was not at his desk.

“Looks like,” Stanley said. He measured his wristwatch’s time against the clock on the wall in an open act of pointed criticism.

"I think he had to run out again to...get something printed?" Stanley turned to Amelia and her eyes went wide. If he were a card player, Stanley would have simply pushed in all of his chips and called her bluff. Instead, he calmly asked her, "And are we having printer issues today?"

Amelia’s eyes stayed saucer-shaped. "We may very well might…be."

Stanley rubbed his temple, made a high-pitched ah-huh noise, and walked back to his office. Hurriedly, Amelia called Morris's cellphone for a second time, matching the two texts she'd already sent him.

The call went to voicemail and "The Rainbow Connection" began playing. It sounded as though Morris had recorded the song by holding his phone up to a TV speaker. It annoyed her to no end. Morris had replaced his usual outgoing message with the mournful ballad from The Muppet Movie about a month prior, and Amelia was determined to get him to change it back. True, she had a well-documented aversion to all things Muppet. But that aside, she reasoned that a client could try to reach him after work hours and undoubtedly perceive the tune childlike or, much worse, something a college student would use.

Yet even in the throes of protestation, the tune's introspective vibe caused Amelia to think back to before Stanley was promoted to management, back to when she, Morris, and Stanley were all close friends – well, “close” for office friendships anyway. In those days, they often gathered on the fifth floor alcove to eat lunch together and, every other Friday or so, they’d just the three of them go out for drinks at Hotchsky’s. But Fun Stanley had been set out to sea by a wave of corporate promise, eventually catching Reliable Morris in its riptide. If a promotion had turned Stanley into King Schmuck of Wristwatch Valley, professional jealousy had turned Morris into Prince Whatever of Blasé Mountain. He had been habitually tardy for weeks upon weeks, and today's disappearance was likely a sign of worse things to come.

A beep finally ended the song about the sweet sound that calls the young sailors. Amelia took a deep breath and found her inside voice, a measured terseness. "Hey, you really need to call or text me if you're gonna be this late. Stanley's looking for you and I'm fresh out of possible errands you could be running. And, you do realize, I can't do your work and mine too, okay?"

She ended the call and started on an email to one of her clients, Aberdeen Underground, which she'd been putting off all morning in favor of keeping Morris's hounds at bay. No sooner than she began typing she heard Morris's chair creak in the cubicle next to hers. Amelia hadn’t heard him enter the office, but his door was closest to the elevator so he didn’t have to walk by other Voguish employees to get to his desk. She wondered if maybe moving him to a place where he’d have to walk the Gauntlet every day would straighten him out before deciding that it would, at best, serve as nothing more than a temporary fix.

"I just left you a voicemail,” she called over the partition. “You need to get your act together and be here on time, dude. I'm not your big sister."

He didn't respond. She heard some typing coming from his side of the wall and hoped that he was addressing a billing inconsistency that had been flagged around ten that morning. She had no idea what had caused it, and was glad that he was here to take care of it now…if that’s what he was doing. She had no way of telling.

"Oh, and if I ever need to leave early, guess who’ll be handling each and every one of my clients’ requests? His name is Morris and he’s kind of a jerk."

Still no response. Amelia huffed (cringing to hear herself actually huff like a cartoon character), then turned her attention back to the Aberdeen Underground email she couldn't seem to start on. She thought it was just because she was too busy to concentrate, but she was starting to see that it was something bigger. Her thoughts were stuck on a loop about what a self-centered jerk Morris had become, and how it was affecting her entire outlook on her job. She used to like coming into work, but his apathy mocked her dedication. She didn't like how his attitude affected hers. It put her in a mood that made the room feel stuffy to the point where it was hard to breathe.

That’s when she heard “The Rainbow Connection” coming from Morris’s cubicle. Before she could stand up to shout at Morris that she wasn’t in the mood for games, Stanley's office door swung open and he darted toward Amelia's desk. "Is he in yet?" Stanley lobbed the question in her direction, though he didn't stop for an answer. He then spoke in a voice that sounded like he was talking to a house pet.

"Aww...where's Morris? Where's my good boy?" Stanley strode passed Amelia's desk to stand directly in front of Morris's. There was a short gasp and the pet owner voice was gone. It was replaced by a funhouse mirror version of Stanley’s normal voice. "Okay...what am I looking at here, Morris?"

"I'm Morris the Person, here and ready to get the job done!" Amelia suddenly felt as though she were the one in the funhouse. She still couldn't see him, but the voice was Morris's, that much was unmistakable. However, it was more animated and silly-sounding, like he was reading Green Eggs and Ham to an elementary class.

Stanley then backed away from Morris's cubicle, returning to Amelia's field of vision. His face was a maze of confusion and terror.

Rather than standing up to peer over the partition, Amelia decided that whatever was going on deserved the quick Band-aid removal method. She got up and walked out of her cubicle, quickly circling around to stand in front of Morris. That's when she saw the new thing that Morris had turned himself into.

It was quite surprising. Morris had covered his head and arms in a bright blue material, the type of slightly furry cloth used to make puppets. It clung as close to him as skin. Fluffy yellow hair spiked outward from the top of his head. He had also affixed ping pong balls over his eyes, had placed in them small holes allowing for a what had to be limited visibility. The new eyes had blue eyelids which were positioned in such a way as to give him a relaxed, somewhat lazy appearance. Altogether, the work was very professional-grade. Morris had somehow skillfully turned himself into a big puppet, albeit one in normal street clothes.

"Hiya, Amelia!" it said to her. The song was still playing; the lonely, dreaming frog wrestled with ever-approaching destiny. Morris's fascination with it may have been a clue of things to come, though who could predict a puppet man showing up to work one day?

"Hello, Morris the Person," Amelia heard herself say. "Is this...is this like, for a birthday party thing or something?"

"Nope! This is me now. Till the end of time!" Morris the Person's mouth opened slightly, looking amazingly like a genuine smile to the bewildered woman it was directed toward. His big puppet head swayed side-to-side in soft euphoria as the song played. Somewhere behind her, Stanley's office door slammed. Amelia tried to say something, anything that might reach deep into the puppet thing to find Morris, but then her desk phone rang and, after a brief weigh-in of her options, she decided that answering the call would be the best thing to do in that moment.

It was Dasha from Aberdeen Underground, calling to find out if Amelia had sent a delivery through the night before. She hadn't, and there was a looming deadline. Amelia asked Dasha to hold one minute and then just sat at her desk, doing nothing but staring at the blinking light of the held phone call. She listened as "The Rainbow Connection" ended and then immediately started playing again.

Other coworkers started gathering near Morris's desk, some to pay him compliments on his craftsmanship, others to snidely mock him. Morris spoke to them all in the whimsical voice he had chosen for his new persona, never breaking character in the face of snark or logistical questions about life as a puppet. Soon after, a security guard came up to their floor and asked Morris the Person if he - if everything in fact - was alright. Once the guard was satisfied that the costume wasn't meant for dangerous motivations, he went to calm down Stanley.

Amelia listened to this all as she watched the blinking hold light eventually extinguish, followed by Dasha trying to call again. Amelia didn't pick up. She could fix the delivery mistake, but she wasn't in the mood for worrying about it now. It sounded like many of the coworkers had dispersed from Morris's desk, so she went back over to see him again. "The Rainbow Connection" was still playing, though it was either now at a lower volume, or Amelia was less bothered by it.

"Hiya, Amelia!" Morris the Person said in the same tone as before.

"Listen, Morris the Person," she said. "I want you to know this: I can work with a puppet. That's fine. But I'm not going to be friends with one. It's nothing personal, but I don't want to be the girl hanging out with the big puppet man at Hotchsky's or the taco place on Second Street."

"It sounds like you could use a lesson in tolerance!"

"No, I don't need that. I'm not talking about hanging out with someone in a wheelchair or a man that decides to live his life as a woman." She pointed at him. "I'm talking about you. You're dressed like a clown and acting like a child."

"An open mind is a window to friendship!"

"Probably is, but I don't want to be friends with Big Bird's news reporter. If you can't do this job as a real person, that's fine. Be Morris the Person all you want. But you better be here on time and ready to work when you do it."

"I'm here and ready to get the job done!" he replied. He made a I'm-on-it arm gesture to signal his resolve and Amelia noticed that Morris only had four fingers on each hand. She hoped his method for achieving the effect wasn't surgical.

"Well then, Morris the Person. Welcome to Voguish. I look forward to working with you." With that she left him and went back to her desk.

By the time Amelia left the office that night, she didn't even notice that "The Rainbow Connection" had been playing on a loop the entire rest of the day.

A week later, Amelia did end up going to Hotchsky's with Morris the Person. She had been busy as hell the previous few days and figured going to a bar with a giant puppet would at least make for a good story after she quit working at Voguish, any day now she figured. But you know what? The puppet thing turned out to be a fun time (and a surprisingly effective wing man). The following week, Stanley and a few other coworkers joined them and had a great time too. By the end of the following year, Morris the Person had been named CEO of Voguish and Amelia couldn't tell you what they'd all do without him.

Time is funny that way, just like television often tells us it is.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Orange Soda

After six long years sweating it out with Lisa in the country, Bob was glad to finally be living in a bustling city neighborhood, even if it meant he now had a divorce under his belt. He enjoyed running errands on foot during the weekend, saying hello to all the shopkeepers and random folks making their way up and down Green Leaf Avenue, though not all of them appreciated Bob's attention. There were restaurants and bars and banks and so many little stores that Bob often forgot that he had, say, a music store or a shoe repair place right around the corner. It was the perfect change of scenery, revitalizing a still reasonably young man after an unhappy span of time.

The only problem, if you could call it that, was that Bob loved orange soda. He loved it so much that he didn't dare keep a drop of it in his apartment. Lisa had taught him to fear his love of orange soda through health articles and straight up science to the point where Bob quit drinking it for their last four years together, but that changed when he moved to Green Leaf Avenue. There was a store a block away that had a vending machine out front, offering sugary orange goodness day or night. Bob still didn't buy more than one at a time, but he often found himself making the walk to the machine two or three times a day, sometimes as late as midnight.

It was during one such late night trek that Bob saw a homeless man with wild silver hair sitting near Bob's destination, perched on the back of a bus stop bench. Bob had seen the man around before; dirty face, missing teeth, a penchant for muttering under his breath and intimidating passersby. This was usually during the daytime, a time when pedestrians flooded the sidewalk and Bob could angle himself behind other people to avoid the silver-headed man's intense gaze. However there wasn't anyone to hide behind out at this time of night.

Bob thought about doubling back, but quickly felt ashamed by the impulse. It was ridiculous to be afraid of someone that had never shown him any harm. Plus, Bob knew that he wouldn't be able to sleep if he couldn't press that ice cold can to his lips for at least one citricy sip.

Before getting much farther, Mr. Silver Hair jumped down from the bench to the sidewalk, blocking Bob's path. In that moment Bob deeply regretted not keeping orange sodas in his fridge. He could hear the man say something, but it was faint. It was then that Bob realized that, at some point between his apartment and this point he had already taken a few dollar bills out of his pocket, and that the homeless man was staring at the wad of money in Bob's hand as he muttered.

"I'm sorry," Bob said, trying to keep his pace and direction firm. "Sorry, man."

The homeless man overcompensated his volume and shouted at Bob. "Wanna tell you some shit we got going on here, Mikey!"

Bob didn't know why the man had decided that his name was Mikey, but it freaked him out.

"Just out for a stroll, dude," Bob said as he sidestepped past the silver-headed man. He thought for a moment that the man had tried to grab his arm, but he continued unabated. However, now the homeless man was following him. Bob would still have to cross a street and a parking lot until he reached the soda machine, and he didn't feel like being harassed the entire time. He made a decision and turned to face Mr. Silver Hair.

"You know what? Here," Bob said as he peeled a dollar from the wad in his hand a thrust it in the homeless man's direction. Silver Hair took the money quickly. The reaching/grabbing motion was pure muscle memory though; his face was still intent on Bob.

"Some real shit, Mikey!" the man told Bob. The money had apparently failed to elicit gratitude. "We got some work to do. Gotta clear 'em out, you hear me?"

"Jesus, dude." Bob shook his head and couldn't believe the next thing he heard himself say. "Just give me the dollar back, okay?"

"Not about the cash," the homeless guy said as he leaned in closer. Bob backed away and almost fell off the curb into the street. "I'm talking about the mirrors, Mikey."

Bob stared at the silver-headed man. In return, the man tilted his face downward and raised his eyebrows, his eyes wide on Bob as though he had just revealed an unmistakable truth that Bob should have realized all along.

Bob did not share the man's conspiratorial vibe. "Now you're talking about mirrors?" Bob said, dismissively. He shook his head and started walking toward the soda machine. As he crossed the side street, the homeless man followed.

"All up and down this street, Mikey." The man clapped his hands and continued. "My man, how many mirrors you think they got versus how many they got on you. On me. I've counted them out. It's over a hundred. More mirrors than we got people. Just look around, Mikey!"

The store was closed, but the soda machine was always open for business. Bob was thankful that the parking lot was still well-lit. He'd hoped his silence would send Mr. Silver Hair a message to leave him alone, but the vagrant waited patiently as Bill fed two dollars into the machine and pressed the picture of the orange logo. A can noisily flipped through the machine and landed in the tray below. Bob fished it out, immediately opening it and taking a long swig. He didn't care about the homeless man in that moment. He had never been thirstier.

Two quarters fell into the change receiver. "Keep those if you want 'em," Bob said as he zipped away from the machine and toward his apartment. He knew he'd have to lose the homeless guy before he got back, and hoped that fiddling with the quarters would buy himself a head start. He got all the way back to the side street and glanced back to see Mr. Silver Hair just sitting by the store's front entrance. He didn't seem to be interested in Bob anymore in the least. Bob continued on around the corner and stopped long enough for another deep sip of orange soda, then slowed his pace for the walk back.

As he neared the next side street, the one that led back to his apartment, Bob noticed a store that he hadn't really paid attention to before. It was a mirror store, with a dozen or so mirrors displayed in the front window. Bob stopped walking and thought about it. He recalled seeing his reflection in these before, but the store had somehow never registered as one of the many on his block.

It's funny how the mind works, he thought. What's more, the store certainly explained Mr. Silver Hair's concern. He paused again.

Well, it explains it in a theoretical way, but not a practical one. Bob had assumed the man was using code when he was raving about the mirrors, that perhaps he was actually talking about secret video cameras planted by the government or some other such invasive conspiracy. A fear of literal mirrors seemed a bit silly in this day and age, something out of medieval times. But the man was obviously crazy and Bob did his best to not dwell on the poor man's odd obsession.

Bob took two steps and then stopped again. A tall display mirror stood beside the store's entrance. The shopkeeper had obviously put it out as a means of advertising the location, but surely they hadn't meant it to be left out overnight, where it could so easily be stolen. It was a floor length dressing mirror, the kind with a rotating stand used to tilt the mirror toward the floor. It was angled a bit toward Bob's feet now. He saw in the reflection that his soda had fallen out of his hand, the can's remaining liquid pooling in an orange froth around his shoes.

But that wasn't right. He could feel the cool aluminum can still in his hand. He reached forward and pushed the top of the mirror back a bit, angling it so as to see his face. The face that stared back at Bob belonged to a stranger, and maybe not a person at all.

"Are you Bobby?" it asked him. Bob had never gone by Bobby before, though sometimes a friend would call him that and he'd let it go.

Then it occurred to him. "Are you Mikey?" Bob asked the thing back.

Without thinking, Bob took a step closer to the mirror, not realizing that he was already standing right in front of it. There was no room to move closer, only through. That's how he walked through the mirror passage before he could stop himself.

On the other side, the first thing Bob noticed was that he still felt like himself, despite what the mirror had shown him. The second thing he noticed were all the shadows that surrounded him, hanging limp in the place where the world had once stood. The third thing was that he no longer had his orange soda.


Friday, July 1, 2016

Getting Out

I don't know if it was addiction or what, but Freddy definitely had some kind of weird obsession with those escape rooms. You know the kind of places I mean; a dozen or so people pay about $30 apiece to be "locked" in a confined space and told that they have a set amount of time to solve several puzzles hidden around the room in order to successfully "escape". Depending on the group you play with, an escape room could make for a fun night of silliness or an intense opportunity to show off how brilliant you think you are.

Most escape rooms had specific settings, like a corrupt politician's office or a haunted operating room, but Freddy didn't seem to care about the set dressing. He just loved uncovering secret compartments and solving puzzles, all for the ultimate thrill of escaping the room before time was up. If the team didn't get through enough of the room by the end of the hour (or however much time was allotted), then they'd lose the game and have to try again another time. Sometimes the company that owned the room gave discounts for repeaters, but not always. This upped the stakes for guys like Freddy to succeed the first time through.

There was a catch, of course. You see, a big reason that these rooms were so hard to beat was that ten or twelve people trying to solve a puzzle at once was just about impossible, much harder than half that number. Communication gets muddled the more people that are involved, every participant shouting out ideas over each other. Escape room companies looking for repeat business made sure to set the minimum numbers of players at as many people as their space could hold. That meant that Freddy would have to either convince just about every friend he had to spend $30 to play a new room with him, or he'd have to be paired up with strangers that needed an extra person. Well, he quickly ran out of friends willing to spend money on the same type of entertainment every weekend, so Freddy soon found himself on several waiting lists around town as an "additional player".

One Friday night, Freddy called me in an anxious fit and begged me to join him in a game downtown, at some place called OMNi Room (a quick search online told me that the acronym stood for Our Misbegotten Nights; kind of dorky, but most of these companies were). Freddy seemed really excited about getting into one specific room there called "Fourth of July", and had been notified that a group who had reserved it needed two more players to complete their party. I was feeling exhausted after a long work week and really had just wanted to veg out, but I told him that I'd rally if he'd cover half of my entrance fee. He agreed and I left my apartment soon after, navigating downtown for OMNi Room.

Freddy met me outside of the old, squat, freestanding building on Price Boulevard. He told me the rest of the group was already waiting for us on the third floor. The elevator somehow seemed older than the building. Its dim and boxy buttons were covered with pieces of masking tape, upon them the floor numbers were written in Sharpie. On the elevator ride up, I asked Freddy about the room.

"It has something to do with the Fourth of July?" he said with a shrug. "That's all I know, and I don't even know that for sure."

It wasn't a surprising response. Escape room companies were notoriously secretive about their rooms' settings and storylines, routinely handing out lifetime bans to repeaters that tried to post specifics through social media. This made it next to impossible to learn tricks to get out early. It made escape rooms special, and it was one of the few things that I truly appreciated about them. It was a welcomed alternative to all the guides and manuals available for every other form of entertainment. However, I was confused about the Fourth of July theme for this room, as it was early September. The elevator doors opened before I could float any theories by Freddy.

The third floor looked more or less like any office space; linoleum floors, florescent lights. I followed Freddy, practically darting in front of me, down a narrow hallway to a waiting room. That's where I met the rest of our group: nine very drunk, very loud kids in their early-to-mid 20's - and Earl.

Earl, who I'd say was safely in his forties, made a beeline for me and Freddy as soon as he saw us standing in the doorway of the waiting room. He wore a suit with no tie and had obviously already had a long night leading up to this portion of the evening. Dark lines hung under his eyes and it appeared that his graying hair had been liberally mussed.

"Hi, guys. I'm Earl," he said, quickly shaking our hands with a too-firm grip. He spoke in a clipped manner that suggested years of being the only sober guy in the room. "The OMNi people probably already went over this, but ours is kind of a special group. You seem like smart fellows, so I'm going to trust that anything you see or hear is nothing but a few young people letting off steam. Sound good?"

"Sounds good," I found myself assuring him, though I had no idea what he was talking about. Earl nodded in a way that told me he'd never been told "sounds bad" before. He left us and returned to his post. I grabbed Freddy by his arm and dragged him back into the hallway.

"Okay, what the hell was that?" I asked, my voice in low, but concentrated whisper.

Freddy just pursed his lips and lifted his eyebrows as though I hadn't finished my thought. I gave him a small, but concentrated shove to the chest and he ended the act. "Okay, so you see that one kid in the Lakers hat?"

I took a step towards the waiting room and saw the Lakers cap. "Yeah, I see him." The kid looked vaguely familiar and I felt a strange sensation that I knew him from my personal life.

"His name is Derek Crestline. Apparently, he's on a TV show called Scrape. I've never heard of it, but I guess he's like the next big thing or something."

I couldn't help but roll my eyes. "Shit." I'd had my run-ins with celebrities before and the experience always left a bad taste in my mouth. Rising stars usually were the worst, their inflated egos getting more and more rampant with each talk show appearance or paparazzo footage airing on TMZ.
 
I watched as Earl tried to say something to Derek, whose attention was glued to his phone. He had one leg draped across a girl's lap, a girl that I almost could place as well. She was wearing a red, white, and blue jacket, which seemed like a sign that she had at least some interest in the room we'd be trying to escape. Most of the others were also on their phones, but two girls and two guys were playing with some handheld puzzles that OMNi had put out to get players into a problem solving mood. They seemed to be mocking the puzzles, but I gathered that their derision was more out of frustration than a sense of superiority.

Freddy's eyebrows were back up, defensive. "Maybe it's for the best! Maybe Fourth of July has challenges that actors and, you know, entourage types would excel at." Off my unsatisfied expression, he continued with, "Look. I know it's not the best group to play with. They're probably going to annoy the hell out of us. But we can still have fun, right?"

I hated Freddy for it, but he was probably right. If I weren't at OMNi Room, I'd just be flipping through channels while lying on my couch, probably stopping to laugh a bit at Scrape (whatever that was) before finding an old monster movie on cable. At least there was the possibility for adventure here.

Just then a young woman walked into the room and asked the Crestline group if they were ready to start. They barely registered that someone was talking to them. Earl clapped his hands twice and repeated what the OMNi woman had said. I shot Freddy a look, but he was too mesmerized by the game's initiation to notice. The woman introduced herself as Julie and asked the rowdy drunk kids (and Earl) to follow her. She walked by us and, in a way that noted our discord with the others, asked if we were with the group. Freddy nodded excitedly; I could only muster a weak smile. We followed Julie and the rest of the group down another hallway and through a doorway adorned with a small placard that read "Ye Fourth of July Room".

Inside, we found ourselves in a small waiting room. A giant door painted to look like the American flag stood before us. Julie asked us to stand against a wall as she went through the rules of the room, which were also written out on a large document that looked like the Declaration of Independence. Derek was quiet, but several of his friends asked stupid questions and offered up ridiculous scenarios.

"What if one of us accidentally breaks one of the clues?"

Julie looked concerned for a moment, before breaking into a fabulously fake smile. "Don't break anything. How about that?"

"Yeah, but what if one of the clues is already broken?"

"None of the clues are broken," Julie said, now a little tense. "I can guarantee you that they aren't. I actually don't know if any of the clues are even breakable, but please just don't break anything."
 
As she wrapped up her spiel, Julie urged us to work together and keep in mind that many puzzles wouldn't make sense until we had all of the pieces, which may be hidden anywhere in the room. She then told us that phone usage wouldn't be allowed inside, which was met with gasps. She nodded solemnly and asked everybody to turn off their phones. The resulting act looked like dismemberment, but eventually everyone complied. With that, Julie opened up the door and we finally saw what the Fourth of July Room consisted of.

It was a party room, decorated for an Independence Day celebration. The room looked like somebody's game room or maybe a pool house. There were a couple of sofas angled toward a big screen TV where a movie was playing. A snack table covered in patriotic colors and themed food trays sat off to the side, next to a bar where the liquor bottles were filled with jelly beans instead of alcohol. There were pictures of the founding fathers in ridiculous party poses on one wall, and another wall had a large window with a view of fireworks, which exploded into brilliant displays on a loop. It was clearly playing on a monitor behind a false window front. However, that clever bit of technology confused at least one of the Crestline party.

"Wait, are they shooting off firecrackers outside?" the girl in the red, white, and blue jacket said.

"No, sweetie," Earl told her. "That's just a TV behind the wall." Derek Crestline just stared at it, either mesmerized by the pretty colors or glad that he hadn't embarrassed himself by asking the same question.

Julie then told us to have fun and closed the door. We had one hour to solve the puzzles. I didn't see anything that looked like an obvious clue, though I did notice a few locked drawers and safes scattered throughout the room. There was a young guy lounging on one of the couches. He was dressed in shorts and a tank top, oblivious to us as he played on his cellphone. This was our moderator, somebody from OMNi who made sure we didn't mess anything up or stray way off the path with any of the puzzles. However, with the listless character he had been assigned, he could have easily been from Derek's crew.

Freddy got to work right away. He grabbed a clipboard and soon figured out that Jefferson, Adams, and Washington were absent from the founding fathers that were partying in the pictures on the wall. That linked up to the fact that Jaws was the movie playing on the TV. So he had "J", "A", and "W", but needed an "S" (which is also the 19th letter in the alphabet). Yeah, I told you these things could get dorky.

I was trying to figure out the significance of the fireworks display loop, looking for patterns and anything out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the Crestline group was still pretty much in their own world. A few of the more buzzed ones had opted to sit on the couch with our moderator and watch the movie; others seemed to have lost the will to live now that they weren't able to use their cellphones. Derek was standing next to me, still mesmerized by the phony fireworks. I asked him if he saw a pattern. He looked at me for a moment and then called Earl over to give him some gum. I could tell that Crestline was going to be a big help.

The moderator jumped up, dropping character a bit, and warned a few people that were trying to get into the jellybeans that his "dad" would be upset if they ate any of the food in the room.

"All of the food in this room is for after the fireworks, guys," he said as he put the bottles back into specific places on the shelf. "My dad is real strict about that stuff."

That probably meant that all of the food was fake, but I could imagine a few of Derek's friends eating several plastic pieces of fruit without noticing the distinction. Several of them had flasks and were keeping the party going as Freddy valiantly tried to rally them to solve puzzles that he uncovered from underneath chip bowls and inside a coffee table. I guess that "S" had paid off somehow, but the Crestline group offered no assistance for the logic grids or missing word algorithms that Freddy brought to them.

I had since moved on from the fireworks display after nothing seemed to jump out as a clue. I decided it was either just a decoration meant to distract us, or I would need more information to solve it. Instead, I tried to unravel the mystery of the snack table.

Thirty minutes had passed and no end was in sight.

The food did turn out to be a clue, as did a game that our moderator was playing on his cellphone. Earl did his best to organize the puzzles that we uncovered, even decoding part of a pun-based rebus, this intricate picture puzzle that Freddy had found under a rug.

"Hey, this is kinda fun!" Earl exclaimed to everyone that was listening to him, which was just me and Freddy. "Would you look at that?"

The clue that Earl's puzzle revealed, a simple math key with a four digit solution, opened up a medium-sized safe which contained several tiny American flags. They looked like factory rejects, misprints. All of them were attached to keys.

"I bet one of these is not like the others!" Earl cried out, his voice a little giddy. I could tell that escape room madness had overpowered his sense of duty to Derek Crestline. However, he was the only member of his party that was helping us, so Freddy and I elected to let him work on the tiny flag puzzle.

Freddy found a scale in a secret compartment, figured out that the jellybean bottles had different weights, and went to work deciphering the resulting figures. He was in the zone, as it were, a special place where reality melted away to its most basic elements. I could see what Freddy liked about these rooms. Everything had a purpose, would lead to something that made sense. Thinking about a problem too much was an obsessive liability in the outside world, embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst. But overthinking an issue was essential in an escape room, a commodity to be wielded with absolute pride. Freddy was home here among the problems in want of solutions.

Earl was not home. The tiny flag puzzle had apparently broken his brain.

"They're all the same," he said. "I mean, they're all a little crazy. See how the stripes zigzag here and there and some of the stars are missing? But not one of them is less crazy than the others."

"Maybe it's not about the keys," I told him. He looked up to me with confused hope. "Sometimes they put out things that appear obvious, but aren't. Have you tried laying them all next to each other?"

Earl started to set them out on the coffee table, mumbling something about the nature of order versus chaos to himself.

The moderator held up his hand and made an announcement. "Okay, I've had several requests from people that want to leave the room early. I can allow it, but you basically forfeit the game. And I can only open the door once. If I have to do it again, the game is completely over and you have to leave. So, if you want to get out of the room now, raise your hand."

Many hands shot up, including the girl in the red, white, and blue jacket. Freddy looked at me with a panic in his eyes that worried me more than the prospect of losing the game. However, it was Derek Crestline that spoke up then.

"C'mon, you guys. Let's stick with it. Freddy seems to know what he's doing and it's only like ten minutes till time runs out. Let's hang."

Everybody nodded immediately and threw a few words of encouragement towards Freddy. Derek went back to staring at the phony fireworks. Once everybody was back in their normal state of blaséness, I cornered Freddy near the bar.

"Crestline knows your name, huh? You might have mentioned that."

Freddy shrugged. "Okay, yeah. We shared a studio apartment when I first got to L.A." He smiled crookedly. "Tons of runoff girls, man."

"Gross, dude," I said, and went back to check on Earl.

"There is something here," Earl muttered, staring at the collage of the tiny flags. He looked like Richard Dreyfuss, not from Jaws but another Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "See how the lines are off by just a bit, this way and that. Don't know why I couldn't see it before."

I looked at them for a bit and noticed it immediately. Earl needed a win though; he'd earned it.

"I don't know, Earl. Maybe they all fit together, somehow. Why don't you sit down here and think about it?" I gestured to the edge of one of the couches. He nodded and sank down into the cushion. He rubbed his eyes for a moment and then glanced up at the flag display. Earl's expression shifted - I knew he had it.

"Wait a minute, just a minute..." He leaned forward and changed the position of a few of the flags. His hands were shaking. "Hold up just a second here." Freddy was standing beside me now. We looked at each other and smiled. Earl jumped up. "Got it!"

The stars and stripes on the flags revealed a pattern, but only when arranged correctly and only from a certain angle. Earl jumped up. I tried to calm him a bit as Freddy drew out the pattern on the clipboard. Once he had copied it, he set the diagram down on the coffee table. It didn't mean anything. We just stared at it.

"Three minutes left," the moderator announced.

"Shit," Freddy said. "We're so close. I don't have it. Do you see it?"

I didn't. Not really. There was something there though, something that almost made sense. But my brain told me that I hadn't spent enough time with it.

Then it clicked. I went over and grabbed Derek Crestline by the shoulders and led him to the drawing.

"Hey, man," I said, showing him the pattern from the flag puzzle. Earl was sitting with his legs crossed next to the coffee table, his fingers in his mouth. I said to Derek, "You see anything here?"

Derek looked at the drawing and nodded. "Oh, rad." He snagged the pencil from Freddy's hand and began circling all of the firework patterns that were no doubt burned into his retinas after staring at them all night. The results were clear instructions. We went to the large door that led out and saw that there were four, nearly invisible, palm-sized circles on it.

"Thirty seconds," our moderator warned us.

Derek, Earl, Freddy, and myself all placed our hands on the circles and twisted them back-and-forth in a rocking motion, just as the instructions had told us to do. The door clicked and we backed away as it opened up. Blaring march music, something by John Phillips Sousa, filled the room and the sound of the fireworks became deafening.

"Yes!" Freddy said, throwing an arm up into the air.

"Congratulations, guys!" It was Julie. She walked into the room and joined our moderator, who now seemed a lot more officious, even in flipflops. Freddy and Earl high-fived. Most of Derek's friends nodded and switch on their phones. Derek Crestline smiled for the first time all night. Julie continued. "You did it. You escaped the Fourth of July!"

Freddy and I went out for a drink after the Crestline party took off for the next thing. It amused me that only Earl had introduced himself to me; I had caught a couple of names, but didn't actually meet most of them. Even Derek Crestline had only offered a fist bump as we celebrated our victory. The OMNi crew allowed us to take just one group picture in the escape room, from an angle that didn't give away any secrets, but I probably wouldn't ever see it. Derek told Freddy that the two of them should hang out again sometime. Freddy told me later at the bar that hanging with Crestline wasn't likely to happen.

"Oh, yeah? Why not?" I asked. We were midway through our second round of beers.

"Nah, he's in a different place these days." I could tell the idea made Freddy uncomfortable. Or maybe it was the unlikelihood of it happening at all. "I wouldn't know how to be in that world. That's just not where I'm at, you know?"

"I guess not." I looked at my friend for a moment. He was getting older, but so was I. So was everybody, even boring celebrities on the rise like Derek Crestline, our escape room savior. "And where are you at, Freddy? Where are you these days?"

He smiled and shook his head. "I don't know, not really. I guess I got out." Freddy turned and raised his beer to the nearly empty barroom behind us. "Happy Fourth of July, everybody!"

One guy started to repeat it, but lost his momentum when he realized nobody else was joining in. I lifted my bottle to take a drink and Freddy did the same.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Precarious Configuration

Bailey was never thrilled to come home from work and find me playing video games in my underwear, but this last time was the worst I'd seen. With a hint of despair in her voice, she asked me how my search for a new job was going, and I had to admit to her that I'd forgotten that was what I was supposed to be doing during the day. In my defense, it really hadn't felt like two years since I'd been laid off. Bailey helpfully reminded me of the full extent of my forced sabbatical later that night when she took us out to dinner for our anniversary.

"Surely it hasn't been that long," I said, my voice muffled from the last bite of the chocolate volcano cake.

"Don't you remember?" she said as she signed the bill. "It was on the morning of our third anniversary."

"And this is...?"

"Our fifth. And it's our last if you don't start looking again."

I knew she was just kidding about that last anniversary remark, but Bailey's point was loud and clear. My days as a stay-at-home dad were over (not much a shock, considering we didn't have any kids). I held the door for Bailey and made sure to not get sex wrong later that night.

My first stop the next morning was the mattress factory where I used to work. Maureen, now one of those managers that has an office overlooking the assembly floor, informed me that the factory still didn't need my services.

"That's weird," I said to her as I looked down at the horde of employees. "It looks like more people work here now than before I left."

Maureen changed the subject to the Cardinals' chances of getting into the playoffs and I decided to not think too much about the extra workers manning my old post at the memory foam station. As I left, Maureen promised to let me know if anything opened up.

"Thanks, that's awesome," I said. "I'll just wait to hear back from you before I look elsewhere."

"No, you should still look elsewhere," she said, a bit too intensely.

The trip to my old job left me a bit deflated; Maureen's advice to keep looking had stung a bit. I shook it off, knowing that she only had my best interest at heart. The months that we had worked at the factory together had forged a lifelong friendship. And she likely had Bailey's best interest at heart as well, their being sisters and all.

I drove around town for a while after that, doing my best to concentrate on the type of job I might want. My thoughts kept zeroing in on the idea of ice cream, though I wasn't sure if I wanted to break into the ice cream business or if I just wanted a double-scoop of mint chocolate chip. After some careful consideration, I pulled off to the side of the road to ask Waze to find me an ice cream shoppe. As the application loaded, I looked up and saw the thing that I had been searching for, right there on the corner of Cornish and Doublet.

It was a construction site, one of those bustling assemblies of man and machine hinged in service to some magnificent new structure. I sat there in my car and thought, I could do that. There were dozens of strapping roughneck types swinging hammers, digging ditches, and wheeling wheelbarrows around. They were wearing casual clothes and most of them appeared to be in good spirits, if not exactly cheerful.

The longer that I watched, the more I recognized a crude semblance of a hierarchy. The foundation diggers seemed to be competing with the wheelbarrow operators for lowest rung on the ladder. Above them, hammer and saw tradesmen crafted elegant pieces to the whole. Though their thumbs were under constant threat of an accidental smashing or severing, these tool wielders were obviously more skilled than the others, and likely better paid.

But then I noticed someone off to the side of the manual labor flow and saw my future. He was a gentleman that was just kind of watching over all of the other workers. He'd offer passive requests to the laborers here and there, but nothing too urgent. He certainly did not physically exert himself in the least. This was something I could definitely do.

Waze instructed me to turn left in 1000 feet to begin a quest to a nearby ice cream shoppe. Instead, I discontinued the app and began to devise a plan.

I really wanted that supervisor job, but I knew better than to go up and ask the supervisor for it. He'd surely be as protective of the position as I'd be once it was mine. I began scanning the signs that were posted around the site for a phone number or company name, anything that might aid me in finding the supervisor's boss.

I had my answer after about another hour of watching. A heavyset man wearing a bright green tie and carrying a clipboard approached the supervisor and said a few words to him. My new rival nodded to Green Tie, before relaying some instructions to one of the hammer guys. Green Tie was obviously the boss; I recognized the chutzpah. He checked off a few items on his clipboard and then went into a trailer sitting on the far side of the site. The side of the trailer had "El Dorado Building Company" in large, bold type with a phone number plainly visible underneath. I somehow hadn't noticed it earlier.

I got out of my car and walked through the construction site, past the men that I would soon be supervising. I did my best to walk and behave as though I belonged there, though I overheard several of them commenting to each other that they had seen me "creepily staring at them" from my car. Also, I was likely betrayed somewhat by my cargo shorts and Backstreet Boys t-shirt, which I sometimes wore because I liked their music.

I let myself into the El Dorado trailer, which was kind of a makeshift office, and introduced myself to Green Tie, whose actual name I eventually wrestled from him.

"Fine, it's Barry," he said, a bit irate. "Now will you tell me what you want?"

Offering a fist bump, I told Barry my name and that I was interested in the supervisor position. I estimated that I was more than qualified to watch over the guys that were digging and wheel-barrowing things.

"Maybe not the hammer and saw people," I explained. "Not just yet. But with time I could learn."

Barry was clearly a man that didn't like to rush into important decisions. He looked me over for a moment and then rubbed his chin.

"You're a real go-getter, huh?" he asked me.

"I sure am," I said, deciding Barry needn't know about my habit of playing video games in my underwear.

"That's good," he said. "It's quite a commodity on these jobs. Why don't you come back here tomorrow morning, say 7 o'clock? I think we can find you something to do."

I reminded Barry that I was really only interested in the supervisor position and that I'd be perfect for any of El Dorado's other sites if this one was already plenty supervised. He assured me that the workers at all of their sites appreciated a foreman that spent a little time getting his own hands dirty before throwing dirt onto theirs. There wasn't a mattress factory equivalent to this idiom, so I nodded and told him that I'd be happy to try out a few of the other jobs for a short while.

"That's good to hear. Of course, you'll need work boots," he said, pointing to my sandals. "For insurance reasons, you see."

"Could I borrow a pair from one of the other guys?" I asked, hoping I wasn't also inadvertently asking for some strain of foot fungus.

"Sorry," Barry said. "It's our one rule. You gotta wear boots and you gotta bring your own."

Before I could remark that this sounded like two rules or some sort of compound rule, Barry suprised me by finally returning my fist bump. He then politely asked me to get the hell out of his office trailer. Walking back to my car, I proudly strode past the other construction workers. I didn't need to act like I belonged anymore, because now I did. I got into my car and drove to the nearest mall, where I ate ice cream and spent several hours shopping for a sturdy pair of boots.

Bailey came home from work that night and saw my new work boots sitting by the front door. I had accidentally left the sales receipt on the table where we put our keys and cellphones, and she gasped when she saw the total cost. During my years of between-employment, Bailey and I had agreed to some basic rules about major purchases, most of which I had broken when I bought my new work boots.

"You spent two hundred and thirty six dollars on boots?" she asked. I quickly paused my game and began to put my pants back on.

"Well, I have this new job," I told her. "I'm going to be a foreman. A foreman is kind of like a supervisor for-"

"Yeah, I know what a foreman is," she said, cutting me off. "Why did you need to spend two hundred and thirty six dollars? I could have gotten you work boots for sixty bucks. Maybe less."

I knew which ones she was talking about. Those so-called work boots didn't have steel loops or circumflex technology in the soles, though I doubted Bailey cared about such features. I explained to her that among people that did manual labor all day, boots were a status symbol. They were a way of setting myself apart from the non-foremen, as I wouldn't be the wearing the ties or carrying the clipboards that management did to set themselves apart. I also told her that impressive boots would serve as a good talking point during lulls in conversation, which was almost as important as the other reasons I had given her.

"Well, at least you found a job," she said. "I'm proud of you."

"You're not upset that I didn't think to look for a construction job sooner?" I asked her. Bailey smiled and changed the conversation to a TV show that we had been binge-watching, and I forgot to circle back for a follow-up on the job question. It was a line of questions better left untouched anyway, as I had forgotten to ask Barry what the job paid before I accepted it.

The next day, I promptly arrived back at the corner of Cornish and Doublet at 8 a.m. sharp, forgetting that Barry had asked me to be there at 7. The workers' glances at my footwear informed me that I had made a smart purchase. I let myself into the El Dorado trailer and was several lines into my tardiness apology when I realized that Barry had been replaced.

"I'm not a replacement," Barry's replacement said, after I had referred to him as such a fourth time. "Managers are called to different sites for a number of reasons. However, Barry told me all about you and what you hope to offer the EDBC. My name is Danny."

Off my look, Danny explained that EDBC meant the El Dorado Building Company. I had encountered my first bit of industry jargon in the world of construction. He then escorted me out the trailer office to meet my new supervisor.

"Well, he's technically my supervisor now, but I'll be taking over soon enough," I told Danny as we walked past some of the other EDBC guys.

"Yep, that's what Barry told me you'd say," Danny replied.

The foreman was introduced to me as Monty, but I couldn't think of him as anything except my professional rival, one that I hoped to replace in a way that Danny had apparently not replaced Barry.

"Take good care of him, Monty," Danny said as he left us and went back to the EDBC trailer.

Monty smiled at me for a long time. He appeared to be even friendlier than Barry or Danny. I was secretly thankful to end up in such a courtesy line of work, even though I hoped to ruin Monty professionally by the end of my first week. I decided that I would try to do it in such a way as to not prevent Monty from ever working in construction again, which was somewhat my original plan.

"Well, let's see," Monty said, sizing me up a bit. I stood tall and jutted out my chest. "Hmm, I can't decide if you'd be better at digging or choosing the songs that the other guys listen to while they work. Which would you prefer?"

I hadn't realized that song chooser was an available position. I had assumed that the music that played at the site was coming from a radio set to a rock station. Music selector seemed like even a sweeter job than being foreman. I'll call myself the Atmosphere Coordinator, I thought. Excited by the prospect, I told Monty that I had excellent taste in music and would very much enjoy giving the song chooser job a try.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Monty said, and then he smiled a bit. "I guess what I'm describing is a disc jockey, and we don't have disc jockeys around here."

"I'm sorry?" I leaned in a bit, which was a mistake.

"I said, we don't have deejays here, you idiot!" Monty picked up a nearby shovel and flung it at my feet. "Pick that up!" He was yelling at me. "Pick that up, moron!"

I quickly snatched up the shovel and held it like an umbrella, my shoulders raised to my ears. A few of the other workers were now gathered around us and smiling at these proceedings. I felt a little foolish when Monty revealed the punchline of his joke - and the yelling was unnerving to say the least - but I knew that hazing the new guy on the job was a time-tested tradition. Back at the mattress factory, Maureen would routinely spit at new employees and smear dog poo on the back of their heads. In hindsight, that seemed a little harsh too.

"Hey, anybody want a new pair of boots?" Monty said. Like the song chooser job, this also seemed too generous an offer to be true. However, once I noticed where everybody else was looking, I realized Monty was talking about my new pair of work boots. I tried to protest as two men dropped their tools, pulled me to the ground, and held me down as Monty tried to pull off my recently-purchased footwear. The boots held fast to my feet though, so Monty had to spend a full two minutes undoing the knots and unlacing the top five loop sets.

He tossed the boots into the crowd and flung another shovel at my feet. There didn't seem to be any shortage of shovels at the construction site.

"Now march your ass to the dig zone and start digging, maggot!" he screamed. A few other guys repeated some of the names that Monty had called me, adding "scum sack" and "no boots" to the list. My socks became filthy as I trudged toward the group of men that were digging the foundation. They looked at me with contempt and I realized that the lowest place in the hierarchy of construction work was the new guy with no shoes on his feet. Soon after, I also realized how difficult it was to push a shovel into the earth while wearing just socks.

Later that night, I told Bailey everything that had happened to me. We were sitting on the couch and finishing a spaghetti dinner. She told me that I should quit, but also to really try and get the work boots back. I told her that it had taken me two years to get the construction job and I wasn't about to quit it on my second day.

"It didn't take you two years," she said. "It took you less than a day. It's not like you were looking before then. You don't even know what else is out there."

"It doesn't matter what else is out there," I said. "I'm not good at anything."

Bailey sat back and thought for a moment. "Well, you're a pretty good husband. Usually. And I don't know if you're any good at video games, but you seem to like playing them." I nodded and she continued. "And you look halfway decent in your underwear. There. Maybe look for something in that field." She laughed and flung a throw pillow at my head, causing a meatball to roll from my plate onto the floor. This caused her to laugh even more and then, for a third time that night, Bailey made me tell her about how I had tried to call the cops on Monty during my lunch break earlier that day.

Then we watched TV, and then it was bedtime.