A short story that exhibits how the horrid lows in life can immediately supersede the triumphant highs…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
Trigger Warning: This story contains references to a child’s death that might be disturbing to some readers.
Dan Cortez loved his life. He loved his wife, Cora, and their nine month old daughter, Lola Grace. He loved his German Shepherd, Al. And he loved his job at Autotron Engineering Corporation, where he was the Executive President of Marketing.
Today was a big day for Dan Cortez. He had a meeting about a potential merger scheduled with Autotron’s competing engineering company, where he would lay out the benefits of an Autotron acquisition. The first benefit was obvious — dominance over the market, including government contracts. Dan spent the whole month, including weekends, crunching numbers and studying market trends, creating colorful geometric charts with arrows and a lengthy table of contents. He was as ready as he’d ever been.
Dan chatted with Paul Parr, CEO of Autotron, while they both took a piss in adjacent urinals.
“The proof is in the numbers, Paul. The merger makes perfect sense.”
Paul Parr nodded as he zipped up his tailored pants. Dan continued talking as they washed their hands a few feet away from the urinals.
“I invited Lou from accounting, and Teresa and Bob from sales.”
Just then, Larry Kline, Dan’s underling and gregarious hype man walked into the bathroom and immediately gave him a high five. Their workplace banter was more like middle school boys who’d just gotten to second base in the party closet game Seven Minutes in Heaven. There were a lot of high fives coupled with a series of back and forth “Awesomes.”
“Dan the man is in the house!”
Paul Parr stared at Dan and Larry for a moment like a disappointed father before turning to leave the bathroom. When the door closed behind him, Dan turned to Larry.
“Hey man, we need to cool it with our banter.”
“Is it too much?” Larry asked.
“To be honest, yes.” replied Dan.
Larry rested his baseball mitt-sized hand on Dan’s sculpted shoulder.
“Say no more. I got the memo. We’re good.”
Larry and Dan then performed their unique hand shake that included front and back hand slaps, a series of fist pumps, a twirl, and for the finale — raining jazz hands.
Dan spent the morning in his office with his door closed, listening to Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Eminem. The nineties hip-hop playlist helped to pump him up, psychologically, for the meeting of his life. Dan often imagined himself as an underdog corporate Rocky Balboa, a first generation Mexican-American whose parents were immigrants. They worked several menial jobs to help put Dan and his two siblings through university.
Dan suffered from imposter syndrome. He was the first employee to show up at work and the last employee to go home. His obsessive work ethic stemmed directly from his imposter syndrome. Cora would benefit the most from his neurosis, especially after becoming a stay-at-home mom to their only child. But for the last three months, Cora started to put Lola in daycare so she could have more “me time,” which included lunching with the uppity mothers in their gated community, and working on several charity boards where she planned elite-themed fundraisers charging five hundred dollars a plate, and hiring the Red Hot Chili Peppers as musical guests to tone-deaf corporate raiders and their Stepford-looking wives. Deep down in Dan’s psyche, he would compartmentalize his rage. Hip-hop subconsciously allowed him to tap into his quiet rage born of everyone and everything owning him. He could feel the take-over day-by-day, and it bothered him. He felt, at times, that his life was spiraling headlong into a cornucopia of super plush sofa cushions.
Larry snapped his oversized fingers right in front of Dan’s blank face.
“Buddy, are you OK?” asked Larry over Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” echoing from Dan’s laptop speakers.
Dan snapped his head to the right like someone emerging, head first, out of a large body of water.
“Yeah, he replied as he began to rub his eyes from the stress.
“You’re up in five,” reminded Larry.
“Have you ever had a nagging suspicion that you’re forgetting something very important, but you can’t put your finger on what it is?” asked Dan.
“Yeah, all the time. It’s called getting older, my friend.”
Larry grabbed Dan’s Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer from the back of his office chair, holding it up like a matador, signaling to his boss and friend to slip his long, lean arms into the sleeves, a perfect tailor fit. Next, he sprayed minty fresh breath spray into Dan’s mouth, narrowly missing his left eye.
“You got this,” said Larry.
Dan shook his head in agreement.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Larry a little louder this time.
“I got this,” said Dan.
“Come again, amigo.”
“I got this!” screamed Dan.
For a moment, Dan felt like Rocky to Larry’s Paulie, and that the meeting was the final match between Rocky and the Russian Ivan Drago. All that was missing was a white silky boxing robe and gloves.
Before leaving his office, Dan would reach down and touch the sweet face of his baby daughter looking back at him from the photo framed atop his desk.
“Wish Daddy good luck,” he said under his breath.
Dan looked around the top floor conference room, usually reserved for the CEO and the board of directors. Everyone of importance was there from both Autotron and their competitor. Dan closed the door behind him before the meeting commenced.
An hour and half later, the door reopened. Dan stood next to the opened door and shook hands and exchanged business cards with the people as they left the room, one-by-one. Paul Parr, CEO of Autotron, was the last to leave. He was a man of few words, and carried himself with an air of mystique.
“Good job today, Dan. Autotron stands behind you.”
His voice bellowed like the bushy eyebrowed news anchor Dan Rather.
Dan smiled, and shook his hand with much enthusiasm.
“Thank you Paul.”
Larry tapped on Dan’s door as he headed home for the evening.
“The talk around the office is that you killed it today.”
With Larry’s insistence, the two men began their obnoxious hand shake of front and back hand slaps, a series of fist pumps, a twirl, and topping it off with raining jazz hands.
Dan shook his head as he closed his office door behind Larry. He appreciated that Larry was likeable and loyal as an overweight labrador, but some days his overhyped wingman persona left Dan completely drained. He could take Larry in short bouts.
When he got to his chair, he’d collapse. He’d run over all the talking points from today’s meeting in his head, checking off each one. However, something deep inside his consciousness was troubled but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Dan let out a big sigh of resignation.
After an hour of playing catch-up, Dan began to gather up his things before heading home. As always, he was the last one to leave the office, including the CEO. It was slightly dark outside when he opened the front doors of Autotron, which led to a landscaped courtyard before an outstretched empty parking lot. When he clicked on the tiny unlock icon button on his chunky, black key chain, the headlights would flash on his 2020 silver Audi Q7.
Dan pulled out of his company’s parking lot blaring “It Was a Good Day” as his thoughts floated and drifted during the thirty minute commute back to his three car garage, Greek revival home tucked into a pristine gated community enclave. There his blonde, statuesque wife of five years and his beautiful cherub daughter he loved and adored awaited him. In fact, that’s why he worked so much. He wanted to give his family a better life than the one he had.
“Today was like one of those fly dreams
Didn’t even see a berry flashin’ those high beams
No helicopter lookin’ for a murder
Two in the mornin’ got the fatburger
Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp
And it read, “Ice Cube’s a Pimp! (yeah)
Drunk as hell, but no throwin’ up
Halfway home, and my pager still blowin’ up
Today, I didn’t have to use my AK
I gotta say it was a good day.”
Dan patted the top of his German Shepherd’s head the moment he opened the front door. He could hear Cora in the kitchen cooking dinner, and the sound of a large spoon periodically tapping against the side of a saucepan. He’d glean that she was making a savory pot roast by the scent of well-seasoned beef, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, and sweetened carrots. He dropped a stack of mail on the marble kitchen counter before sneaking behind his busy wife for a quick, behind-the-back embrace.
“The meeting was a huge success today,” he whispered in her ear, taking in the floral scent of her perfume.
“I told you. You were all worried for nothing,” replied Cora before turning all the way around to give her husband a full-frontal hug.
“It was so awesome, Cora. Paul even waited after the meeting to say—” Cora stopped Dan mid-sentence.
Dan looked at his wife in a confused manner.
“She’s home with you.”
“No, Dan. You took her to daycare this morning before you headed to the office. We discussed this. Don’t you remember?” asked Cora.
Dan began to run his hands through his head of thick, black hair, almost ripping it out at the root. Cora pushed him aside as she ran to his Audi inside their three-car garage, where in the backseat she found their beloved Lola slumped dead in her soaking wet car seat. Neighbors could hear screams from a full block away as a steady stream of sirens poured into their blue ribbon home community.
Dan passed out from his guttural grief. He later woke up in the hospital where he was officially told by his tending ER nurse that he’d left his baby girl inside his hot car all day, forgetting to take her to daycare as planned. His whole focus had been on the do-or-die meeting, which he’d hoped would later reap a bigger and better life for his family.
For the next year, Dan lived in the guest room. It was the only room in his house that didn’t hold memories of his former life. He was put on a series of medications for his catatonic grief, taking months to find the right combination. He let his hair grow to his shoulders, and rarely took a shower. Cora would divorce him to only get engaged two years later to a wealthy philanthropist twenty years her senior, who lived three manicured cul de sacs away from their own.
The loose ends of grief would continue to linger on for Dan Cortez. He would go on to sell his monstrosity of a house, splitting the proceeds of the sale with his ex-wife, and later downsizing to a two-bedroom condo next to a man-made lake. He’d join a gray-looking, smelly gym reminiscent of the one that Rocky worked out in from the films. Dan stayed on his medication, and committed to talk therapy two times a week. Little by little his broken life started to have some order again.
He would always wonder how it was possible that his subconscious-self knew he’d left Lola in the car while his conscious-self remained totally oblivious, only thinking that it was a good day.
Carolynn Kingyens is the author of two poetry collections: Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released Coupling, both published by Kelsay Books (Coupling is available on Amazon). In addition to poetry, Kingyens writes essays, book and film reviews, micro fiction, and short stories. Today, she lives in New York and Canada with her husband and two amazing daughters.