by: T.E. Cowell
Two offerings of fiction that embody the everyday struggle…
Of course you know you’re supposed to always answer yes at the end of the day when your D.I.A.D. asks the following question: Was load quality acceptable? Every day, at the end of the day, no matter what, even if load quality wasn’t acceptable, even if you had a bigger load than you wanted, you’re supposed to answer yes. Yes, yes, yes. You don’t know what would happen if you answered no instead of yes, but from what your supervisor alluded to during your “training,” it seemed like a fairly big deal to never answer no, to always answer yes.
But here you are at the end of another day, an excruciatingly long day, and your D.I.A.D. is asking you the question again: Was load quality acceptable? On days like this, it is like the thing is taunting you. You are tired, and in your tiredness you are somewhat delusional. You are a workhorse, nothing but. You think that you have to make a stand, that if you don’t now, you never will. You are sick of it all, of everything. You’re not going to put up with it anymore. No more lies. So, you answer no to the question: Was load quality acceptable? You answer no with the alibi in your head for your supervisor that you meant to answer yes, that it was a slip of the tongue, nothing more. You’ll say, “It was late, I was tired.” Everyone makes mistakes. You think you’ll be forgiven.
Instantly after answering no, your D.I.A.D. informs you that you have been terminated. That is what it says on the screen: You have been terminated.
In your tired, delusional state, you laugh. Your laughter is high-pitched and hyena-like. You used to laugh like this back in the day, in grade school, right before you hit puberty. After hearing a fart joke or watching someone slip on the ice and fall on their ass, this is how you’d laugh. You have been terminated. How funny, this life. What a joke. You no longer care what happens. You are too tired to care. Finally, you are free.
It was a temporary thing, I told myself as I dropped the apartment keys off with the manager. A temporary thing, I told myself as I started my piece-of-shit car. As the engine warmed, I walked over to Karen’s apartment and knocked on her door. I thought I’d say goodbye, tell her it was only temporary, that I’d be back before either of us knew I’d been away. I had a job lined up, is what I was going to tell her. As soon as I’d made some money I’d be back. She didn’t seem to be around though. She might’ve been at work. Or maybe she had her headphones on. I thought about leaving a note and slipping it under her door, but in the end I didn’t. I didn’t want to sound sappy or anything. I got in my car and headed home.
“You look skinny,” my brother said.
“You don’t,” I said.
I dropped my backpack to the carpet and we hugged, my brother and I. When the hug was over I swept a glance around his apartment. Somehow it seemed smaller than I remembered. My eyes stopped on the couch.
“Yup,” my brother said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t mention it. You hungry?”
“Let’s go then. There’s nothing here.”
We went to a bar, a kind of workingman’s saloon. The place stunk of dead dreams. I didn’t know whether to feel depressed or what. It was like a warning, being in that bar, seeing the work-tired guys sitting on their barstools. I prayed I wouldn’t end up like them.
“Pitcher of Pabst,” my brother said to the bartender. The bartender looked me over but didn’t ask for my ID. I was twenty-two but I knew I could’ve passed for younger.
“And two cheeseburgers,” my brother said once the pitcher and two glasses were on the counter.
We took a window seat and my brother poured the pitcher into the glasses.
“Cheers,” he said, raising his glass. “Welcome back.”
We clinked glasses and started drinking. I looked out the window and saw the old, familiar streets and sidewalks of my youth. It was terrifying.
Temporary, I reminded myself.
My brother was part of a construction crew. After graduating high school, construction, mostly on houses, was what he’d been doing. He’d earned a reputation over the years as a credible, hard worker. He’d mentioned me to his foreman after learning of my troubles finding work after college.
The house I was sent to work on was already built and ready for living. The only thing that needed to be done was the shingling. My brother and his crew had moved on to the construction of another house somewhere. I only saw him in the mornings, before he’d drop me off in his truck, and in the afternoons when he’d pick me up. Each morning I’d make a ham sandwich and fill an old juice bottle with tap water. I worked with one other guy on the shingling, some guy maybe still in high school who could’ve been on steroids. We’d exchange maybe five words a day, all work or weather related. My skinny muscles strained and started to swell from lifting shingle after shingle and shooting them into the sides of the house with a nail gun. It was the most boring work I’d ever done, but it was work, I reminded myself. That was the important part.
During my lunch breaks I’d sit under the shade of this willow tree near the gravel driveway and watch old people walk their dogs down the road. I’d think of Karen and wonder if she missed me like I missed her. I’d picture her body and begin to get excited, but because it was the middle of the day and I couldn’t do anything about it, I’d release her from my mind and concentrate on the task at hand.
Sunday morning my brother and I went over to Mom’s for brunch. I hadn’t seen her in almost a year, since Christmas. It was while we were headed out there that my brother said, “She’s started seeing someone again.” He was watching the road closely even though we were going only about twenty or so. I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to elaborate. “It’s been going on for a month or two now. He seems like a good guy. Frank’s his name. He’s an electrician. I haven’t seen her so happy since…”
I didn’t say anything. I looked out the window, at house after house that we passed. I thought of our dad somewhere, in some state with some woman. Or maybe he was alone. He could’ve been dead for all I knew. I told myself I didn’t care. What a joke that was though.
Mom’s house was a dark one-story cedar-wood that flanked the ninth-hole fairway of the local golf course. My brother parked his truck at the head of the roundabout next to her green jeep, a car she looked ridiculous in but wouldn’t give up for anything, as the jeep made her think she was in Australia or something, on some endless wild adventure where heartache and loneliness were abstract ideas. In reality she’d never been out of the country, unless you count the one time we’d all gone up to British Columbia for a Thanksgiving. That was ancient history now.
“You look skinny,” Mom said from the doorway. She was in her pajama robe.
“That’s what I told him,” my brother said.
We hugged, my mom and I. She smelled of cigarettes. Nothing new.
“Nice to see you again,” she said.
“You too,” I said.
“How’s it feel to be back?” she asked after getting a good long look at me.
I shrugged. “Like defeat.”
She laughed. “You’re too skinny for construction. I’m glad you’re back, but I wish you hadn’t given up that apartment.”
“I had no choice,” I said.
She gave me this fleeting, heart-wrenching concerned look. “I know, honey. Life is hard. You’re a city boy at heart, though. Doesn’t take a detective to see that.”
“Lay off him, Mom,” my brother said. “He’s doing fine.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’re all doing fine. Everything’s just fine and dandy. Come on in, boys. Did your brother tell you I’ve met someone? Come on in and meet Frank.”
Following my mom and brother through the house, I glanced through the living room windows and slowed a little. There was a black man sitting on the back porch. I followed my mom and brother through the kitchen and out the back door.
“Frank,” my mom said. “My sons are here.”
Frank was sitting drinking coffee and reading the paper. He laid the paper down on the dinette table and stood when he saw us. He started forward in a sweatshirt and jeans, woolen socks and a green trucker hat.
“Well, how do you do?” he said to me, then reached out a hand.
“Fine,” I said. We looked each other in the eye as we shook. He had a friendly look to him.
“I hear you’re a writer,” he said.
“Haven’t written anything worthwhile.”
He laughed. “Nothing’s easy.”
“He’s just being modest,” my mom said. “He was born modest. Look at how skinny he is. He’s a great writer. You can see it in his shoulders.”
A few hours later we were driving back towards town and my brother’s apartment. “So what’d you think of Frank?” he asked.
“Seems nice,” I said.
“Yup,” my brother said.
Back at the apartment, I turned my phone on for the first time since I’d left the “city.” I had a missed call. It was Karen. She’d left me a message. I put the phone to my ear and listened to what she had to say. It was nothing good. She was angry I’d left without telling her.
I called her back but she didn’t answer. I left her a message. Temporary, I told her. I’ll be back, I said. Like Terminator, I said. I miss you, I said. I had no choice, I said. Life is hard, I said.
I waited for her to call me back. She didn’t, though. I guess she saw right through me. She knew better than I did that I wasn’t coming back anytime soon.