by: M.B. Binkley
In a land that attempts to present a certain image of utopia, a perverted ethos reveals itself…
Skin cancer sprouts up everywhere in the Florida summer like an out-of-control weed. Business is booming for dermatologists. Some make more money than surgeons, just for hacking off moles.
The sun is bigger here. It’s hotter. Closer. Anyone can reach up and almost touch the corona. Outside, human flesh pops and crackles – bacon in an overheated skillet. Clothes stick to skin. Heavy, humid air weighs on everything and pushes everything down towards the dust.
Air conditioners buzz nonstop, day and night, little overheated factories. The newspaper includes ads that say, “We’ll fix your A/C in 24 hours, guaranteed.” (Don’t forget to read the fine print!)
Sunlight sharply reflects off buildings, roads, cars – all objects, really. Just looking around outside can cause blindness or other conditions. The term “ocular melanoma” has found a place in the popular lexicon here in Florida.
Brown, brittle grass breaks beneath footsteps. Crunch, crunch, crunch. The wooded areas are so dry that a bolt of lightning can suddenly spark a massive, raging fire. Only a few types of plants and animals thrive in this environment. Everything else wants to die or already has. The vultures hardly ever have to wait.
Homeless in Orlando, Randy King smells like dead fish, vomit, and raw sewage. His oversized clothes, ripped and faded, bear multicolored stains from the rotten food that smeared against him as he rummaged through dumpsters. His own dried blood speckles his torn socks and hardened blisters bulge on his feet and toes.
Tangled, matted black hair presses against his scalp and teems with lice. A wiry black beard hangs to his chest and contains small remnants of asphalt and brown grass from sleeping in alleys and parks. Yellow teeth protrude from swollen, grimy gums. His skin – perpetually exposed to the sun – resembles beef jerky. Half a mile above, circling vultures mistake him for a corpse.
Randy lacks health insurance and cannot afford to pay a dermatologist to remove the melanoma spreading across his forehead. Each month, the lesion looks bigger, darker, and more irregular. Without treatment, the cancer will inevitably metastasize, penetrating his skin and entering his bloodstream to end his life.
This, however, is the least of his worries. He is much more concerned about what he will eat today, if anything, and where he will sleep tonight.
Orlando recently passed a law that prohibits people from feeding the homeless within city limits. Violation of this law constitutes a misdemeanor that may result in a fine or jail. The police have already arrested some of the bolder activists who handed out free bread and water in the park.
The local lawmakers go on television and the radio and try to justify the law. They speak about the homeless in the same way other people here talk about alligators.
“If you feed them, they will keep coming back and one day they might attack you or your children.”
Starving in the city, Randy flees to the suburbs like the rest of them. He finds a busy intersection where the traffic piles up during lunch time and the afternoon rush hour. He stands beneath the scorching sun and begs all the people idling in air-conditioned cars at the red light for help.
The intersection is Kennedy Boulevard and Elm Street, as in John F. Kennedy and Freddy Krueger – two equally poignant representations of American life. On the one hand, optimism and opulence. On the other, barbarism and brutality.
Randy first appears at the intersection with a cardboard sign that states in big black letters: “READY TO WORK.”
“If you get a stable job, you can remove your daughter from the foster home and restore your lives together,” a municipal agent had told him.
For weeks Randy stands at the intersection with his sign. Most people sit in their cars at the red light with their windows up and doors locked, and anxiously avoid eye contact.
“Don’t look at that man,” the mothers tell their children.
“Get a job,” another man yells.
On very rare occasions, somebody gives Randy a few coins or a dollar bill, but nobody ever offers him a job. Nobody takes that chance.
Every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., like clockwork, a semi truck carrying forty thousand pounds of groceries, meat, and produce passes through the intersection. About eleven percent of these products will inevitably go to waste.
Flashes of blinding light indiscriminately fire from the truck’s polished chrome hubcaps. The fifty-three-foot trailer glistens in a fresh coat of white paint, and bears the name of a company that owns and operates forty-eight grocery stores in and around Orlando: Fresh Foods.
Each side of the trailer displays the same large images meant to entice onlookers: a thick steak, cooked medium-well and sprinkled with sea salt; two ears of sweet corn with plump, golden kernels, loosely wrapped in bright-green husks; a generous slice of buttered French bread; and a tall glass of water with ice cubes and a mint leaf.
When the truck stops at the red light, rumbling and sparkling, Randy gazes at the images as his stomach churns. His arms drop down – his fingers still clinching the cardboard sign.
Motionless, he imagines how the food tastes, how the ice feels when it touches his chapped lips. He imagines that time stands still and everything around him freezes, suspended in space, and the images become real.
He walks to the side of the trailer and tears off two handfuls of bread. It tastes even better than it looks -the flaky crust and the warm, soft interior. He eats the bread until the hunger goes away, then presses his face into the steak. The juices run down his chin and neck and he loses count of the bites he takes.
Satiated and stuffed, Randy climbs on top of the trailer using the ladder on the back and jumps into the towering glass of cold water. He erupts with bursts of laughter.
The light turns green. Everything begins to move again.
The pain in Randy’s stomach returns, the hunger, the emptiness and despair. The insufferable heat burns his face and the lice pick at his scalp. The lesion on his forehead itches. He suspects it’s malignant.
The truck rolls into the intersection and begins to take a slow left turn. Randy imagines himself lying on his back and letting the truck run over his chest.
Maybe then people would look at him.
An old, two-story Victorian house stands at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Elm Street. The house was renovated from top to bottom, and converted into a workplace.
Darla Kay, a Certified Public Accountant, owns a small accounting firm and leases the second floor. At sixteen hundred square feet, the second floor consists of two offices, a restroom, a small kitchen, and a waiting area.
Darla’s office, the largest of the rooms, includes a line of windows that overlook the intersection. Her leather chair and mahogany desk face the windows. She likes to glance outside every now and again to see how quickly she can count the cars. During the afternoon rush hour one day, she counted fifty-three cars in thirty seconds.
Darla has one employee, her assistant, Miranda, whose office is situated next to the restroom. The noises from the restroom – the sound of human waste plopping into toilet water, or the occasional flatulence and moan – carry through the wall and into Miranda’s office. This bothered her at first, but she became used to it.
“Things could be worse,” she assures herself.
Miranda must arrive to work by 7:45 a.m. every weekday, primarily to turn the thermostat from seventy-eight degrees to seventy-two degrees. Darla delights in the wave of cold air that envelops her when she arrives at 8:30 a.m. She maintains this temperature until she leaves for home around 5:30 p.m., at which point she turns the thermostat back to seventy-eight degrees.
Darla’s firm thrives during tax season. The bulk of their revenue during this period derives from work on behalf of individuals. During the off-season, the firm depends primarily upon Darla’s biggest corporate client, Fresh Foods. If this relationship ever ended, for whatever reason, Darla would still do okay, but she would need to lay off Miranda.
Randy’s presence at the intersection bothers Darla.
“What an eyesore,” she often mumbles to herself.
Darla sees how Randy stares into the windows of the vehicles and tries to make eye contact.
“He acts like some sort of predator,” she says to Miranda.
“Maybe he is a predator,” Miranda responds. She always tries to flatter Darla.
“I’m afraid he might scare away my clients. At the same time, I pity him. It’s like watching someone die.”
“I feel bad for him too,” Miranda says. Darla glances at her suspiciously.
Darla grew up Catholic, or more exactly, her parents called her a Catholic enough times that she finally believed it. Although she no longer adheres to any religion, she reads theology from time to time. She cried when she read Evangelii Gaudium – how Pope Francis described the plight of the poor and criticized economic injustice. She cried herself to sleep.
Darla sees Randy gazing at the semi truck, lost in the images. She knows that Fresh Foods will eventually throw away approximately forty-four hundred pounds of the groceries, meat, and produce in each truckload. She knows that Fresh Foods could instead donate every pound of these products to the homeless throughout the city, and still maintain a healthy profit margin. She sometimes feels guilty, like she helps to perpetuate the imbalance between people like Randy and her biggest client.
Randy appears less often at the intersection. He vanishes for days at a time. Whenever he returns, he looks thinner and sicker. He sits more frequently because he lacks the energy to stand. The heat weighs too heavily on his frail, wasting frame.
He has a new cardboard sign. It mentions nothing about work. He gave up on the idea of getting a stable job and removing his daughter from the foster home, at least in the meantime, unless something changes. The sign simply says: “STARVING / THIRSTY.”
On the afternoon of August 1st, during the hottest month of the year, Darla walks to the gas station across the street. She wants water and Miranda downed the last bottle in the refrigerator.
The brief walk melts Darla’s makeup. Beads of sweat trickle down her back and her sunglasses hardly reduce the all-encompassing glare. Each breath irritates her lungs, as if she’s inhaling smoke.
Inside the gas station, Darla opens the glass door to one of the refrigerators. She stands there with her eyes closed, still wearing sunglasses, and lets the frigid air engulf her.
“Ma’am,” the clerk says, “please close that door.”
She takes a case of bottled water from the refrigerator and shuts the door. Before checking out, she stops and examines some bananas.
Randy walks in and goes straight to the clerk, who stands behind the front counter in a defensive posture.
“I told you not to come back. Get out!”
“Please,” says Randy, “food and water.”
“Not my problem! Get out now or I’ll call the cops!”
Randy shakes his head and walks away as he clutches the cardboard sign, his feet dragging across the tile and his shoulders slumped.
He sits on a curb near the gas station with his head down. Showing great hesitation, Darla slowly approaches him.
At several feet away, his putrid stench fills her nostrils. She nearly turns back. He looks up and she notices the black mole on his forehead shaped like a four-leaf clover.
She puts the case of water by his feet, and the bananas. He seems bewildered, like he just witnessed something that everyone else in the world thought did not exist.
“You can have this.”
He does not believe her at first.
“Please, take it.”
He reaches out, his fingers trembling.
She walks back to her office as he pours a bottle of water over his head.
Darla goes up the stairs, through the waiting room, and into the kitchen. She opens the refrigerator and freezer doors. Nobody can tell her to shut them. For several minutes she does not move, still wearing sunglasses to conceal her swollen eyes.
“Everything alright?” asks Miranda.
“I’m fine, just hot.”
“I set the thermostat to seventy-two degrees this morning, but I’ll make it colder if you want.”
“No, that’s okay. Just please go to the gas station and buy a case of water. Here’s some cash.”
Darla sits in her leather chair, at her mahogany desk, and watches Randy fade into the concrete inferno with his water and bananas. Already his step seems livelier, as if her small act of kindness encouraged him to keep going on.
She almost picks up the phone and calls the CEO of Fresh Foods, Robert “Butch” Steele. She and Butch grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same high school. Their parents were friends, and so Darla and Butch saw each other frequently. They developed an amicable relationship, although he once tried to cross the line. Alone together in his room one night, Butch asked to “penetrate” her.
“How about I penetrate your head with an ax?” she snapped.
Butch never tried again.
Naturally they grew apart, as people do. Darla attended a small liberal arts college and Butch went to a large state university where he obtained an M.B.A. They returned to Orlando after they graduated. Butch accepted a cushy job at Fresh Foods, his father’s company at the time. He eventually took over and expanded the company from seventeen to forty-eight grocery stores. Unlike his father, Butch is obsessively driven by profits.
He called Darla one day out of the blue. She easily convinced him to let her assume responsibility for accounting functions at Fresh Foods. She works hard to maintain their business relationship. She obliges whenever he invites her to dinner at some swanky restaurant to discuss “company matters.” After a few drinks, the conversation usually devolves into Butch bragging about money and objects, or espousing his political views. Darla cares for none of it, but pretends otherwise.
Rather than call Butch and risk becoming ensnared in a long, meandering conversation, Darla drafts a letter.
I trust this correspondence finds you well. Congratulations again on opening another store. I am truly honored to be part of Fresh Foods and to watch it grow under your leadership.
I hope you appreciate the suggestion I am about to make. As you know, Fresh Foods, like many grocery stores, must discard at least 10% of its products in order to satisfy the demands and expectations of customers. Upon careful review, I have determined that Fresh Foods could institute a charitable program whereby a significant portion of such products goes to those in need, with a negligible impact on the profit margin. I would be happy to oversee and manage this program at no charge to the company.
If this interests you, please do not hesitate to call me at your convenience to discuss the details. I look forward to your response.
She reads the letter numerous times and broods over minute, irrelevant details that typically never bother her. She becomes increasingly concerned that Butch will interpret her suggestion the wrong way. She thinks of her children, and how the loss of Fresh Foods as a client might affect them. Unless she somehow quickly found a comparable revenue stream, she would immediately have to stop contributing to their college savings accounts.
She crumples the letter and throws it away. She assures herself that she can always bring up this topic at the upcoming “Top Executives” dinner at Butch’s home, if the timing is right.
Butch’s two-story, custom-built home rests on twenty-five acres of land. Designed in the neoclassical style, the brilliant white exterior boasts Greek porticos, columns, and pediments. With five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a sprawling kitchen that includes a wood-fired pizza oven, a dining room that flaunts a Chihuly chandelier centered above a long wooden table, an office, a gym, a sauna, a home movie theater, a full bar, a cigar room, and a wine cellar, one could easily get lost inside.
Butch lives alone. He’s divorced yet managed to retain all his assets and wealth thanks to an airtight prenuptial agreement. He practically memorized it. Nobody has ever slept in three of the five bedrooms, or used the dumbbell set in the gym. Butch dislikes how hot the pizza oven gets, so he eats spaghetti whenever he wants Italian.
Although Darla is not an employee of Fresh Foods, Butch invites her to the “Top Executives” dinner every year. He invites two other people as well: Charles “Chuck” Hammer, his company’s Chief Operating Officer; and Anthony “Rainman” Moretti, its Chief Financial Officer.
This year’s dinner begins with the same old ceremonial bloviating and brown-nosing. Darla and Anthony, the “money people,” as Butch likes to say, sit next to each other at the center of the dining room table, under the Chihuly chandelier. Butch and Chuck sit directly across. Empty rows of chairs flank them on each side. A waiter stands at the door and watches for a cue.
Behind Butch and Chuck hang two large oil paintings, one depicting Joel Osteen’s smiling face and the other depicting Ralph Waldo Emerson riding a horse, trampling on a bed of fresh lilies. Two silver plaques, one beneath each painting, exhibit an engraved quote by each man.
“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.”
– Joel Osteen
“A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him, and if he gives so much as a leg or finger, they will drown him.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
An inordinate amount of food fills the plates and bowls on the table, more food than four people can possibly eat: slices of fried pickles and green tomatoes; an arugula and strawberry salad; sweet potato fries with spicy ketchup; cornbread; grapes and watermelons; Brussels sprouts sautéed in bacon fat; macaroni and Gruyere cheese topped with diced pancetta; shrimp and grits; smoked sausage; beef brisket; and baby back ribs. That does not include the twelve bottles of 2010 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon, at four hundred and fifty dollars a pop, or the desserts baking in the kitchen.
As always, after a few drinks, Butch changes the topic to politics.
“I don’t know about y’all,” he states, “but I’m still just so tickled that the United States Supreme fuckin’ Court upheld Orlando’s City Beautiful Act.”
“Amen to that,” proclaims Chuck.
Darla squeezes the tablecloth in her left hand.
“So let me get this straight,” says Anthony, “I can now legally walk up and kill any vagrant I see?”
“Jesus,” responds Butch, “Where have you been? That’s a surefire way to get your ass thrown in prison. You can’t just go slaughtering homeless people willy-nilly.”
“I only keep up with the financial news,” Anthony states.
“I know, and that’s why I love you,” Butch replies, “but let me break it down.”
Butch shoves a handful of fried pickle slices in his mouth. Everyone waits for him to chew and swallow. He wipes off the grease on his lips and fingers, drinks some water, hiccups, and says, “Excuse me.”
“Basically,” Butch explains, “the City Beautiful Act expanded the right to die movement. Now, homeless people can get assistance from the city to die whenever they want. They don’t even need a legitimate reason anymore, such as cancer, depression, anxiety, or whatever.”
“Amen for freedom,” Chuck exclaims.
“But there’s more,” Butch goes on. “Any homeless person who has at least one minor child can enter into a written contract with any private citizen. Under the contract, the homeless person agrees to die however the citizen wishes. In exchange, the citizen agrees to pay a sum of money to the bum’s minor child, or children.”
Darla grinds her teeth and fills her wine glass to the brim.
“Brilliant,” says Chuck. “So we get rid of the riffraff quicker and reduce the likelihood that their children will grow up to be degenerates.”
“Interesting,” Anthony states, “but financially, how does the transaction work?”
“Well,” Butch explains, “the bum and the citizen must sign and notarize the contract, then give the contract to a trustee. The citizen must also give the trustee the agreed-upon sum of money. Next, a municipal agent must observe the vagrant’s death and sign an official affidavit attesting that the death occurred pursuant to the contract’s terms. Once the trustee receives the affidavit, along with the death certificate, the trustee must manage the funds for the benefit of the bum’s child, or children. When a child turns eighteen years old, the trustee must disperse any remainder of the funds to him or her.”
“Wow, that’s pretty clever,” says Anthony. “What happens if the bum backs out of the contract or somehow screws up the death, can the citizen get all of the money back?”
Darla squeezes her wine glass, already half empty, and nearly shatters it.
“Yes,” Butch responds, “if either party backs out of the contract, the trustee must return the full sum of money to the citizen. As it stands, unfortunately, any bum can renege on a contract without any penalties or consequences. The city is trying to fix that glitch.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” asks Chuck. “Let’s go murder some indigents!”
Everyone laughs, except Darla. Her eyes turn glassy.
“It’s not that easy right now,” Butch states, “my buddy in East Orlando had to pay five hundred thousand to burn a bum at the stake, like they did to witches. A young entrepreneur in South Orlando had to pay a mil to flay a homeless woman alive.”
“Wow,” says Chuck, “you know the world ain’t right when it costs that much money to take out the trash.”
“Hopefully the market will eventually drive the prices down,” Anthony chimes in.
“What do you think about all this, Darla?” Butch asks.
Darla swallows the remainder of her wine in one gulp.
“I’m not surprised about what the city is doing. After all, Orlando is home to Disney World. The city tries to preserve a certain image of utopia.”
They stare blankly at her. Darla pours herself another glass of wine.
“What do you mean by that?” Butch asks.
Darla chugs the wine, barely enjoying the lavishly expensive vintage.
“Easy there, killer!” Chuck belts. Everyone but Darla laughs, and the silence returns.
“I mean, the homeless have no place in a city where a corporation with infinite power, Disney, promotes this image of utopia where affluent people pay fifteen dollars for an overcooked cheeseburger and wait in line for an hour under the blistering sun just to watch a bunch of giddy robotic dwarves sing ‘It’s a Small World.’”
Darla stands up, a tad wobbly.
“What I mean is that Disney has no tolerance for the poor and suffering, and Orlando adopted this same perverted ethos and fulfilled its most irrational possible end. Behind that happy-go-lucky facade, Mickey Mouse is a real fucking asshole.”
Silent and frozen, they stare at her.
Darla sits back down and clenches her fists under the table and looks at her feet. Her heart races and pounds in her ears. She looks up and makes eye contact with the men surrounding her.
Darla forces a smile. “I’m joking, of course.”
Riotous laughter ensues. Chuck spits out his wine and Butch’s face turns pink as he struggles for oxygen. Anthony wipes tears of happiness from his cheeks.
“You really had me going there, Darla,” says Butch. “For a second, I thought you were some sort of Communist hippy.”
Darla pretends to laugh.
“It’s funny that you mentioned Mickey Mouse,” Butch claims, “because I got a surprise for everyone. Follow me outside.”
Butch leads them through the back door and past the infinity edge swimming pool. As they walk across the vast lawn, towards the woods, the St. Augustine grass, freshly cut and sprayed with green paint, crunches and crumbles under their feet. Black streaks of eyeliner start to run down Darla’s face.
“Jesus, Butch,” says Chuck, “where in the fucking fuck are you taking us? My balls are sticking to my legs.”
“Be there soon,” Butch replies, “stop acting like a bitch.” Darla glares a hole through the back of Butch’s head.
They disappear into the woodline and walk beneath a lush green canopy along a crooked dirt trail.
Anthony makes everyone stop so he can urinate behind a bush.
“Too much wine,” he shouts, as they listen to his fluids splatter on dead leaves. He emerges with spots of urine on his pants and shoes.
They continue on and soon come upon a dense cluster of Palmettos that reach ten feet high. They walk around to the other side.
On top of a plastic, foldable table sit cold bottles of water for them to drink, the same brand of water that Darla buys at the gas station. Next to the table, a standing rifle rack holds four Weatherby Vanguard Sub-MOA rifles, all shiny and new.
About fifty feet away, a large wooden chair with leather straps protrudes from the natural surroundings. Next to the chair stands Randy, with a man who identifies himself as a municipal agent.
“Hello, good evening, everyone, I’m Christian Black. I’m here to represent the great City of Orlando and verify that the parties comply with their contractual obligations. Just so you know, I’m authorized to use necessary force against this man. Thanks for having me!”
“Great,” says Butch, “let’s get started.”
“Okay,” he states, “this is what will happen.”
Butch suddenly turns towards Randy. “Hey, go ahead and put on that outfit.”
Randy unfurls a Mickey Mouse costume, complete with giant yellow shoes, red pants, white dress shirt, black tuxedo jacket, yellow bowtie, and white gloves – exactly like the costume Disney World uses in its parades.
Butch turns back towards Chuck, Anthony, and Darla.
“As I was saying, this scumbag here will dress up like Mickey fuckin’ Mouse, and even wear that mask with the big black ears. After he’s done getting ready, I’ll strap him into that chair over there and pin a circular white cloth over his heart.”
Randy pulls the bright red pants up to his waist.
“Then, each of us will get one of those beautiful rifles and stand together behind that white line. One of the rifles isn’t loaded so we can all sleep at night. We’ll aim at the white cloth over the bum’s heart and I’ll count to three. Then, we’ll all pull our triggers.”
Darla’s hands begin to tremble.
“Oh my God, Butch,” yells Chuck, “this is so fucking awesome! I’ve always fantasized about shooting Mickey Mouse in the head!”
“No, not the head,” warns Christian the municipal agent, “the contract says everyone must aim for the heart.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” asserts Butch, “if nobody hits the heart, the bum will probably sit there and slowly bleed out.”
“What if I accidentally shoot him in the head?” Chuck asks.
“The contract only says you must aim for the heart,” Christian explains, “so I guess it’s okay if you accidentally shoot him in the head as long as you aim for the heart.”
“Well, there you go,” states Chuck, “problem solved.”
Randy begins to weep as he zips the last remaining section of the costume.
“Hey,” Butch barks, “the contract says no crying. Shut up and put that mask on.”
Randy tightens his lips and fights back tears as he holds the mask.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!”
Everyone looks at Darla.
“This is fucking crazy! How can you be serious? How can you so happily murder another human being? What the fuck is wrong with all of you?”
Laughter erupts from Butch, Chuck, and Anthony.
“Holy shit, Darla, you are too funny!” Chuck says.
A bottle of water whizzes by Chuck’s leathery, bloated face.
“I’m not joking, you fat fucking idiot!”
She points her finger at Butch.
“You call this off right now!”
“Darla,” Butch states, “calm down. Listen, I agreed to pay this bum’s daughter two hundred and fifty k. She will have a good life, a life that this shit-bag could never give her.”
“Nothing you say makes sense,” Darla snaps. “If you want to do something good, just give this man and his daughter the money. That will lift them out of poverty and change their lives forever.”
“Now look, Darla,” he sneers, “this ain’t about right and wrong. This is about the freedom to contract. That’s America. Freedom.”
“Fuck yeah,” says Chuck.
“I swear to God,” Darla claims, “I will shoot each and every one of you before I let you murder this man.”
Randy, now wearing the full Mickey Mouse costume, mask and all, throws a handful of rocks at Darla and several drill her in the head and chest, one directly in her right eye. She screams and falls backwards.
“Shut up!” Randy screams. “Don’t you fuck this up for my daughter!”
Darla cannot open her eye as she wallows in the dirt and moans in pain. Christian wrestles Randy to the ground and shoves the Mickey Mouse mask face-first into the dry soil.
“Okay, that’s it,” Butch proclaims. “I’ve seen enough.”
He turns to Chuck and Anthony. “We gotta call this off, guys. I’m sorry.”
“Unbelievable,” Anthony states.
“Bullshit,” Chuck says.
Randy squirms loose and pulls a rifle off the rack. The other men freeze and put their hands up as Darla curls into a fetal position. With his finger on the trigger, Randy swings the barrel back and forth at them.
“Hold on, there, buddy,” Butch asserts, in a calm but shaky voice, “don’t do anything crazy. Think about your daughter.”
“This is not in the contract,” says Christian. “It’s not in the contract.”
A howl surfaces from behind the filthy, smiling Mickey Mouse mask as Randy turns the rifle towards his own face. He presses the barrel between those big googly plastic eyes and pulls the trigger.
The rifle falls and everyone gasps.
Randy, with his malignant four-leaf clover, had grabbed the only unloaded rifle.
The other men yank away the rifle from the hysterically sobbing Mickey Mouse and pin him down until he stops struggling. Chuck sprains his ankle in the scuffle and crawls off to the side crying and cursing. Christian fastens steel handcuffs around the thick white gloves on Randy’s hands.
“Okay, Darla, you win,” Butch declares. He looks around at the mayhem and struggles to catch his breath.
“Come on y’all,” he says, “let’s go get cleaned up.”
Nobody speaks during the walk back. Anthony and Butch walk on each side of Chuck and hold him up as he hobbles on one leg, still crying. Darla lingers behind them drunk, her right eye swollen shut, her face stained with black eyeliner, and her new clothes ruined.
She gathers her belongings from inside Butch’s home and washes her face and hands in one of the bathrooms. Butch stands at the front door and holds it open.
“Obviously, I won’t need your services anymore,” he snarls.
Darla doesn’t acknowledge or look at him as she storms out. Butch slams the door.
Darla remains in bed for an entire week as her eye heals. When she returns to work and sits down in her leather chair, at her mahogany desk, she thinks about her children and their college savings accounts. She thinks about Miranda, about how hard she works, how she always arrives early just to turn the thermostat to seventy-two degrees. Darla drafts another letter, one she will promptly mail.
I am writing to apologize for my behavior at your dinner. I obviously drank entirely too much wine. During the past week, I have experienced deep regret over my actions. I would hate for our relationship to fall apart due to one unfortunate evening. We grew up together. We expanded Fresh Foods together. We make an excellent team. I want to fix things between us. When you are ready, I will be here for you.
Meanwhile, Randy sits at the intersection, sick, listless, and burning in the sun. He has a new cardboard sign. This one mentions nothing about work, nothing about being hungry and thirsty. He gave up on trying to get a stable job, or sufficient food and water. This new sign says: “KILL ME FOR JUST $50k.”
Darla closes her blinds. A man stuck at the red light rolls up his windows. A distant rumble signals the approaching semi truck carrying forty thousand pounds of groceries, meat, and produce, none of which will go to Randy.
The light turns green. Everyone drives by him. Nobody makes eye contact. Randy looks around at the concrete inferno. He fears that no space in this world exists for him; that it’s too crowded everywhere and all the other people have already claimed all of the available spaces.
It’s a small world, after all.