A bout of bad luck and a persistent neighbor cause Jack to have a horrible morning — and things only get worse from there. But there could be a silver lining hidden within these events. A short story that acts a reminder how fast it can all be taken away…
by: Parker Fendler
The bottle shattered, its frothy surge splattering cabinets and launching glass fragments across the kitchen. Milky tributaries flowed along grout lines and pooled onto the adjacent carpet. Lauren had insisted on glass bottled milk. Something about no BPA or RBST or some other acronym to scare suckers into paying double lest they die of cancer. He hadn’t even touched it, just opened the fridge.
A glance at the clock confirmed what he already knew, he was going to be late. Again. Jack plucked the shards one by one and dropped them into the garbage. With both feet and one hand planted on dry islands, he strained to reach for a piece wedged under the fridge. As his finger poked it, the tip of his necktie tumbled from his shoulder and flopped into the liquid. He lurched upright and took deep calming breaths. He considered leaving the mess, but Sam’s clumsy paws would surely stumble into the middle of it. He grabbed a broom and swiped the bristles under the refrigerator. The piece came loose and slid through the liquid along with some dust bunnies and a miniature brown log. Jack examined it. A Tootsie Roll? It sure wasn’t Lauren’s. Maybe the previous tenant? Disgusting.
Jack mopped the floor, changed his tie, and filled Sam’s water bowl. He shuffled out the door and slid the key under the mat for Lauren. The first rays of sunlight glinted off the corrugated metal roof that covered the parking spaces two stories below. Jack pulled his jacket tight as a gust of wind chased him down the first flight of stairs. If the traffic wasn’t too bad, he might slip into his cubicle in time to avoid another tardy warning. He quickened his pace as he approached the apartment below. The window was open, and a game show was blasting on the television. He ducked as he passed. No time to listen to the crazy psycho ramble about the heavenly voices in his head. As he straightened, he came face to face with Elmer. Dammit.
The old man’s white wavy hair fanned out under a plaid wool beret making him look like a Russian philosopher. “Whatcha doing, Jack? Something wrong?”
Jack could’ve sworn the coast was clear. “Look Elmer, I’m really in a —”
“Hurry,” Elmer finished. “Same as last time. What’s going on up there anyway? You trying to break through my ceiling?”
“Sorry. I had a little accident.”
“Accident, hmm?” Elmer said. He gripped the rail to the stairs as if to steady himself. The action blocked Jack’s escape route. “You ever wonder if things happen for a reason?”
“No, Elmer. I’m just cursed.”
“It might be you’re blessed, son. A little voice once told me —”
“Elmer, I’m not in the mood right now.” Nor would Jack ever be in the mood for his neighbor’s delusions.
“Okay,” the man shrugged. “Say, Jack, you promised to help me with my television. I’d sure like to catch The Osmonds this afternoon on The Lawrence Welk Show. The cable probably came loose again, but these fingers are useless with my arthritis.”
“I said I’d help when I had time. Anyway, I can hear your TV from my apartment, so I’m pretty sure it’s fine.”
“Sure, if you can see between the squiggly lines with my rabbit ears antenna.”
“I really don’t have time right now,” Jack said. “Call the landlord or the cable company.”
“I’m sorry,” Elmer said. “I didn’t mean to —”
Jack thrust his palm out like a traffic cop, and the old man’s words skidded to a stop. Then he lifted the old man’s hand from the rail as if he were opening a gate, and he took the stairs two at a time.
The LED sign above the freeway scrolled a message that the accident ahead blocked four lanes. Clearly a lie, because all five were at a standstill. Jack pried a finger under his collar and yanked at the starched shirt. Why did he have to wear a tie anyway? He had no face-to-face contact with anyone of importance. He could make phone calls in his underwear, and the customers would be none the wiser. Just one of Ben’s stupid rules.
His lane started to inch along and then jerked to a stop. Brake lights, angry and red, glared at him. He stared them down. His fingers strangled the steering wheel. This was Lauren’s fault. Had she not bought the stupid milk, he wouldn’t have spent all morning cleaning it up. He probably would’ve been beyond the accident when it happened and missed it altogether. Why was he with her anyway? She was always taking clients to expensive restaurants on her business trips, while he ate cereal and babysat her slobbery dog.
Eventually, Jack passed the site of the accident. A compact car was pinned under the cab of an eighteen-wheeler like a crushed can. Rescue crews attended to someone on the ground.
Jack’s hands found the ten and two positions on the steering wheel. Strange how one minute you could be driving to work, and the next…he suddenly hoped Lauren was okay. He’d call her after he was done getting chewed out by his boss.
Sparing a glance at the clock in the office, Jack rushed toward his desk.
“Everything okay?” Ben appeared in his path. Jack’s elder by a dozen years, his boss had slicked back hair that grew a shade darker each month when he re-applied his Grecian Formula.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Jack said. “It’s been a horrible morning. One thing after another, and a huge accident on the freeway.”
“Traffic again, huh?”
Here we go again. “It was more than just traffic, Ben.”
Jack knew that Ben was implying he should’ve left earlier. Defeated, he kept his mouth shut.
Ben grinned. “I’m just messing with you. Half the team was late. Just make up the time you missed.”
Unbelievable. Ben had a way of making a person feel like crap and then acting like he’d given them a gift.
“Okay, thanks,” Jack muttered.
They headed back toward the team area. A warehouse-turned-call-center, the building was a giant rectangle with end-to-end cubicles. Grey aluminum mini blinds snuffed out any promise of natural sunlight. Thanks a lot, Sally. Just had to complain about that glare, didn’t you?
Ben high-fived a co-worker passing by then turned back to Jack. “Everything okay with you and Lauren? Is she still out of town entertaining clients?” Ben’s version of small talk was to pry into Jack’s personal life. The addition of air quotes to imply infidelity was the icing on the cake.
That’s what I get for venting to my boss about my love life, Jack thought. “She’s fine.”
The day at the office concluded with Jack accidentally closing an online file without saving the updates. He’d have to come in early tomorrow to fix it. The commute home took longer than usual because his staying late had caused him to hit rush hour traffic. He missed Lauren’s call, so she left a message. She made it to the hotel. He tried her a couple times and got her voicemail. Figures.
His feet were cement blocks as he trudged up the stairs toward his apartment. All he could think of was going to bed.
“Hey there, Jack.”
Jack spun around. Once again, his neighbor seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jack’s shoulders slumped. He had forgotten about the interaction earlier that morning.
“About the television —” Elmer said.
“Elmer, I’m sorry about this morning. I can look now if you’d like.”
“I was going to say don’t worry about it, son. I know you’re busy.”
Whether by charity or guilt, Jack suddenly wanted to see it through. “Really, Elmer. It was wrong of me to be such an ass to you this morning. I’d be happy to look at it.”
“That’s nice of you,” Elmer said. “You look pretty beat, though. I’m just watching local news tonight so maybe tomorrow.”
Jack nodded and continued up the stairs his eyelids as heavy as his feet.
“Give that pooch a pat on the head for me,” his neighbor called after him.
Voices spoke, resonant yet untethered. Comprehension bobbed and weaved just outside his grasp. Slumber yielded to wakefulness in a creep so slow it blurred the transition from one to the other. Sam snuggled closer, his collar tinkling in the darkness. Still nighttime. Great, now I’m hearing voices in my head, too, Jack thought. Or dreaming of them. Wait, there they were again. No this was different. Voices from a television. He spared a glance at the clock. He had only been asleep for a couple hours. Curious and still fully clothed, he stepped outside and tiptoed down the stairs. Newscasters droned on about…a car accident. Jack stopped. “…was rushed to the hospital where she died of her injuries.”
He peered through Elmer’s window. The old man was sitting on the couch. The grisly scene on the television was the same Jack had glimpsed firsthand from his car earlier in the day. A snapshot of the victim’s face smiled on the screen. Jack thought it a strange contradiction. Of course, when the photo was taken, she had no idea it would be on the nine o’clock news advertising her life’s expiration under ten tons of steel. She was a mother, grandmother, and philanthropist. The newscaster concluded it was a shame. “Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Little more than a clichéd transition to the next featured story, the phrase loosened the weeds of self-pity that had taken root in Jack’s head. Poor Jack who had to drive slower because someone had the gall to die in a car accident. That could have been anyone under that truck, could have been him. Suddenly he was sure of it. Had he left on time it would have been him. The voices in the dream. That’s what they had been trying to reveal. What’s more, a strange sensation proclaimed the absurd: that his neighbor was connected. Could the crazy old man have intentionally delayed Jack’s commute? As if sensing Jack’s presence, Elmer glanced in his direction. Jack dodged aside. What irony, he thought. After repeatedly reneging on his promise to fix the television, he now spied through the window as the fuzzy images shimmied in the poor reception.
Through a new lens Jack observed the scene again, not the one on the TV but in the living room. Elmer sat on the couch, a second hand relic that sagged under his weight. Jack noticed the man’s lips were moving. Talking to himself? No, he was tracing imaginary lines in the air, the sign of the cross. Praying for the victim. Jack could’ve sworn he caught the mention of his own name as well. The man gave a strange tilt of the ear and nodded as if he had received a response. Apparently satisfied with his piety, Elmer fiddled with a piece of candy. A Tootsie Roll. Wrinkled fingers — unencumbered by his oft-lamented arthritis — deftly removed the stubborn wrapper.
Parker Fendler has been conjuring up stories ever since he could dream. He recently began transcribing them after waking. An aspiring writer, he has had two stories published with another forthcoming. He lives in Phoenix Arizona where he gravitates toward indoor hobbies (like writing) that pose a low risk of dehydration in the desert heat.