By R David
The cool water was a relief against my face. There was always something uncomfortable about a hot, sweaty face in the dead of summer. But I've always found that a splash of water did the trick. Even if just for a few minutes. The thing was, I was inside a restaurant's bathroom. An air-conditioned restaurant at that. Why I was sweating, I had no idea. I supposed it had to do with the situation I was in. I was at a very important dinner, one that didn't come along ever. "Come on," I said to my reflection in the mirror. "Get it together. Get it together." Taking a deep breath, I stood up straight and grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser. I wiped my face, straightened the collar of my sport coat, took one last look at myself in the mirror, and exited. I could see him sitting at our booth from the hallway. He was flipping through the menu. I returned to the booth and sat down across from my fifteen-year-old brother, Richard. "I ordered your soda for you," he said. "Thanks, man," I said, opening up the menu to check out my options. "You were in there a while," he said. "You got problems?" "Oh," I said. "I've got problems, all right." I flipped through the menu. I had a few ideas as to what I'd get. There was steak. Ribs. Steak and ribs. Burgers, which were my fallback. Something unique, however, caught my eye. "Parmesan crusted chicken," I said. "That's happening. You know what you're getting?" "I'm thinking," he said, "the bacon barbecue burger." "Smart man," I said, closing my menu. He followed suit, and we waited in silence until the server arrived. "Here you go," she said as she placed our sodas down on the table. "Are you two ready to order?" She wrote down our orders on her pad and walked back toward the kitchen. "She's cute," I said, trying to stir up some conversation. Richard just shrugged his shoulders. "You have a girlfriend," he said. "So, it doesn't matter." It was true. My girlfriend, Nicole, and I had been together for almost two years. And we enjoyed every moment of it. "I know," I said. "I'm just saying. You're at that age now." "Yep," he said, his eyes engaged on one of the TVs. Unsure of how to continue, I also turned my attention to another monitor. I wasn't really focused on it, though, because I never followed sports. "What's with the suit?" he asked. I looked down at my wardrobe. I was almost dressed business professional: black coat, pants, socks, and shoes. The only differences were no tie, and a black dress shirt rather than white. "This?" I said. "Well, you know, I've come to like wearing clothes like these. It's good for appearances." He just gave me a disgusted look. "Yeah?" he asked. "How's that working for you?" This was what I was afraid of. My original intent was to get my brother out of the house, away from his video games, and out for a good time. I should have known better, which was why I kept my cool with my response. "It's working," I said. "It makes me feel good. That's the important part. It's all about mindset." "I guess," he said. I decided to change the conversation. "So," I said, "summer's almost over. You ready for school? Sophomore year." "I don't know," he said. "It sucks having to go back. I hate it." "I know," I said. "I remember being really depressed back in high school, when the summer ended. I'm telling you, man, it gets better. You just have to get through it." Again, he shrugged. I could tell I was losing his interest. I decided to switch tactics. "That one game you're playing now," I said. "The warfare one. I hear they're already making a sequel." "Oh my God!" I knew that would perk him up. "I can't wait," he said. "I already beat the first one and all the bonus missions…" I listened to him as he went on. And I noticed I began to feel better. My original goal was to have a man-to-man talk with him, one of those chats about life. But I realized, as he went on, that times were different from when I was his age. At twenty-seven, I was much older, and out of tune with youth. It was amazing the difference just over a decade could make.
# We returned home a little after eight. I was only dropping him off at this point. I had a desire for alone time. Alone time with my coffee. "You coming in?" Richard asked as he unbuckled his seatbelt. "Not yet," I said. "Going back out for a coffee, do some writing." "Okay," he said. "Thanks for dinner, man. We should do it again soon." "Absolutely," I said. "Just tell Mom I'll be right back." I watched as he walked back toward the house. I had to admit I envied him a little, being young and all. People often said I was young still, but I didn't feel it. Oh well, I thought. I can worry about that later. It was time to get to work. But first, I had to make an important phone call. "Hey, boo!" Nicole said once she picked up the phone. Her voice always came in perfectly while on speakerphone. "Hey, boo!" I said. I always looked forward to our conversations. "How are you?" she asked. "How was dinner with little baby Richard?" "It was good," I said. "A lot better than I expected. I wasn't nervous for too long." "Oh, boo," she said. "You're so silly sometimes. I told you there was no reason to be." "You're right," I said, slowing down to let the deer up ahead cross the street. One of the perks to living in rural New Jersey. "You know me," I continued. "It's intimidating to me, talking to kids. They have their whole lives ahead of them, you know. I'm not exactly the greatest role model." "Boo bear," she said, using our full pet name. "You think too much." "I know," I said, as I turned onto Miller's Corner, the road that would take me back to town. "What are you doing now?" she asked. "Heading back to town," I said. "Going to get a coffee and so some writing." "Very good," she said. "Did that guy email you back?" I was glad she asked. I had completely forgotten. "He did," I said. "Just before, actually. I have to head over there tomorrow before work." Just thinking about it brought back my nerves. "Good," she said. "I'm sure it'll be a successful meeting." "Yeah," I said. "I hope so." A lot depended on it.
# Coffee and writing had become a routine of mine. I realized thoughts seemed to flow more smoothly with my drink of choice. I always went to the same place to get my brew. I kept a digital voice recorder with me, along with a notebook and pen. I picked up the recorder and turned it on. It was sometimes easier to take notes that way. "This is Daniel Francis," I said into the speaker. "Today is Monday, August eighteenth. It's around eight thirty p.m. Update. My idea is expanding. A book series that explores the human condition, as seen through the eyes of the main character. The series will be epic, my magnum opus." I paused. "That's it for now," I continued. "Of course, this isn't anything new. I've had this idea for some time now. So, I suppose it's not really an update. Fuck. Who knows, maybe I'll have more tomorrow. I guess we'll have to wait and see." I stopped the recorder and replayed it. For what it was worth, it felt good to get the words out. Instead of remaining in my head or on a sheet of paper. I stepped out of the car, coffee in hand, and reached into my pocket for my cigarettes. I knew it was a bad habit. I vowed that once my career in anything took off, I would quit. I observed the traffic on State Highway thirty-one, which ran right in front of the store. The traffic was at a moderate volume, with it being Monday night. I enjoyed quiet time to myself, although I came to realize I was looking forward to it even more as time went on. To the point where socializing with others outside Nicole and my close friends and family seemed like a chore. A cop car pulled into the parking lot, taking a spot a few feet away from me. I noticed it was a township car, rather than the usual boro patrol that came here. As the officer stepped out of the car, I recognized him immediately. "I didn't know you still smoked," he said as he approached me. "You know what they say about old habits," I said, returning the approach. Once I reached him, I shook hands with my cousin, Tom. He was only twenty-three, and had already been with the department for a little over a year. "How've you been?" he asked. "Not bad," I said. "Working. School starts again soon." "That's good," he said. "You still working at the store?" "Yeah," I said. "Hopefully when school's over, I'll find something better." I thought of telling him about my upcoming meeting, but decided against it. I didn't want to jinx myself. I had a history of that. "How are things on your end?" I asked as I walked to the nearest oasis to put out my finished butt. "You know," he said. "Living the dream. Getting ready for the three-hundredth on Saturday. Setting up patrols. Do you mind?" He motioned to the store entrance, signaling his desire to go inside. I followed him in. "Hey, Katie," Tom said to the girl behind the sandwich counter. "Hey, Tom," she said. "Dan. Haven't seen you around here in a while." "I've been around," I said. The old me would've held a conversation with her. Instead, I just continued over to the carafes to refill my cup. "I heard about that," I said, continuing our conversation. "That's over on Main, right? They're looking for volunteers for it at work. We're one of the sponsors." "Oh yeah?" Tom said, stirring his coffee. "You going to do it?" "Nah," I said. "Not really my scene. Plus, I'm off." "Not your scene?" he asked. "Well then, tell me, Dan. What is your scene? I mean, we all used to be so close. You don't call. You don't come up to the house anymore. And that's not just recently. This has been going on for a few years now. What happened to you, man? We miss you." I was hoping it wouldn't come to this. It was always the topic I tried to avoid. "I don't know," I said, staring at my cup. "I can't really explain it. I'm just…different now." I walked past him in a passive attempt to drop the conversation. On top of everything else, my ability to tell someone to back off was lackluster at best. He didn't seem to take the hint. "Look," he said as he followed me to the checkout counter. "All I'm saying is maybe think about going. You never know. Anyone who's anyone in town is going to go. These things always have a good turnout." I could tell he wasn't going to stop. "Maybe," I said. "We'll see. Nicole has her show that night, and I've seen it already. So…I'll think about it." "You see," he said. "That wasn't so hard." I reached into my back pocket for my wallet. He touched my arm. "It's on me," he said, reaching for his own. "Ah, gee," I said. "Thank you, sir. You're a gentleman and a scholar." He handed his money to the cashier. "Don't mention it," he said. "I have to get back on patrol. Even us po-lice have to work around here." "That's good to know," I said. "You guys should actually let the citizens around here know that. Take care, man." "You too," he said. "And when you do show up Saturday night, look for me. I'll be the good-looking one." "That won't be too hard," I said. "Not in this town." "Yeah, fuck you!" "Love you too, sweetheart," I said, breaking a smile. As he started his car, I leaned against mine, lighting up another cigarette. He ran his siren quickly as he drove away, to which I responded with a wave. Times had certainly changed since we were kids. I could only hope that one day he'd understand.
# I enjoyed watching television. At the end of the day, I looked forward to coming home, relaxing, and binging on shows that I'd missed. It was almost like an addiction. If only I could find a way to get paid to do it. Most nights, the family is already turned in by the time I get home. This night was no different. That was okay, though. I had an important meeting coming up. I could only hope it'd go well.
# I sat in the waiting room, keeping it together. I was at the office of The Source, one of the major local newspapers. I had originally asked about internships, and had written up an interview I conducted with the paper's editor and general manager, Jack Donozo. The meeting I had been anticipating was to involve him telling me what he thought of my article, and ultimately deciding whether or not I'd make a good fit. Needless to say a lot was riding on his decision. My legs were crossed in the way of successful men, as per my observations. I tapped my fingers on my shoe in a way that I hoped would signify confidence, and not angst. Just as I felt the calm take over, I saw him make his way toward me from down the hall. "Dan," he said, extending his hand. "Jack," I said as I got up and shook his hand. "It's good to see you again, sir." "You too," he said. "Shall we go to my office?" "Absolutely," I said, feeling a bit of anxiety return. I was able to control it, however. I had learned the trick was to not care during these types of situations. His office was only a bit down the hall and to the left. Once we had entered, he closed the door. We both took our seats and I, not wanting any silence at all, started right in. "How was your vacation?" I asked. "It was great," he said. "We had done a two-week cruise down to the Bahamas. Luckily, Mother Nature spared us of any wild weather." "I can imagine," I said. "It is the heart of hurricane season now." We both laughed. "It was nice," he said. "It's hard to get away in this business. It had been so long since we were able to get away like that." "I'll bet," I said. "It's been…years…since I left this neck of the woods for anything. It definitely is a challenge sometimes." It was sad but true. My lack of experience in areas outside the Garden State had led to a rather cynical outlook, so I was unable to share in his enthusiasm. But I sure as hell could fake it. "Now," he said. "Down to business. I read your piece once I got back. I have to say, it was very well-written. You handle your prose well. And the content, the answers I gave, they were all accurate." I sat there, taking it all in, with a look of intrigue on my face. Inside, however, I could sense where this was going. Nothing good, in my experience, ever followed complimenting exposition. I waited patiently for it, the word I was dreading but also knew was coming. "But-" There it was. "-As I've said," he continued, "I expect my interns to be able to turn out large amounts of content each day. Although your style is good, I honestly cannot get a clear picture of how you would do writing traditional stories. I mean, is that something you think you can do? Because I cannot take on anyone without one hundred percent certainty they can do the job." I took in what he said. He had not said "no," which was the most important part. The ball was in my court, and if I played my hand right, I knew I could pull this off. I just had to choose my words carefully. "I can do that," I said. "Not only do I believe I can, I know it. I am diligent, focused, and when I put my mind to something, I get it done. I have applied that throughout my vast work experience, and my studies. Because I am proud of what I do, and to get opportunities like this…that's rare." I had come to appreciate the power of words. When put together, they had a strength that was able to pull off anything. I believe I could not say it any better, but I knew that would not be enough. I then had an idea. "Actually," I said. "I've decided to form a piece that I'll have done by the end of next week, if that helps." This seemed to interest him. "Do tell," he said. "Well," I said, "the three-hundredth anniversary of Hilldale County is having their commemoration in Fernhampton this Saturday. My plan is to attend, observe, and write a piece." "I'll tell you what," he said. "You do that piece, email it to me by Monday afternoon. If it meets my expectations, I'll be willing to give you a shot." Hand played successfully. "Perfect," I said. "I look forward to it." The meeting ended, short and to the point, like I preferred. Although it hadn't gone exactly as I had hoped, I knew I left a winner. I had been given a shot, one that may never have come again. But I knew I could pull it off. One of my greatest strengths was my writing. The possibility to have a career in that field was like a dream. Only I wasn't asleep. I was wide awake, and ready to take on what lay ahead.
# The remainder of my day was dedicated to work. I was an employee at a local supermarket, Shopper's Peak. It was just one of at least fifty locations throughout the state. I had noticed a few advantages to the place upon my original return to retail. For one, the store was less than a ten minute drive from my house. The hours were flexible with my school schedule, which was a major plus given my full-time course load. I was also waiting for some college tuition reimbursement, which in itself was a positive sign in my life choices. And last, but certainly not least, the store provided a safe environment. Even during its busiest times, I could begin a shift without having to worry about a thing. Such was a benefit of being on the bottom. Granted, as with any job, there were some downsides. I was, after all, on the bottom of the pecking order, so the pay wasn't so great. Especially in comparison to my former job. But I was able to make it work. I was in a bit of a transitional period, with this intended to be only a stop along the way to something better. I knew it would come in time. I just had to be patient. I worked in the meat department, with my official position as meat wrapper. My official duties were to do virtually everything except for cutting meat, and the higher responsibilities that were bestowed on the manager. With everything combined, my days tended to run rather smoothly and quickly. The issue I had was in regard to the routine. It was the same thing, day in and day out. I always appreciated breaks in the monotony, although those were few and far in between. But in the end, this helped to keep the fire lit inside of me, the flame that increased my desire for something better. Again, I just had to be patient. On this particular day, I was the only closing wrapper. There were normally two of us each night, but Ivana was on vacation, and Chris was working the mid shift. I wasn't bothered, though; I preferred working alone, as it usually brought the day to a faster close. It was two-thirty, which meant the first shift was over. I was on the auto wrapper, placing the foam boats of meat on the scale at a pace that kept the momentum going without me having to stop. "Everyone have a good night," Gary, the meat manager, said as he made his way to the door. He was young, in his early thirties, and a little inexperienced in his role. But I had to give him credit for taking on the challenge. Managing was one thing that was certainly not on my to-do list. He stopped once he reached me to remind me of the layout for the night. I always found it funny when he did this, since there was no need for it at all. I had everything down to a science. "Also," he said, after giving me my instructions, "I made note of your school schedule, so we're good to go." "Awesome," I said. "Thanks, man." He gave me his trademark slap on the back, and exited the room along with the rest of the first shift. I always enjoyed when they left. The room became much quieter, with only myself, Chris, and the closing butcher, Dennis, remaining. "Thank God for that," I said. "What's that?" Dennis asked from across the room. He was in the middle of cutting boneless pork. "The quiet," I said. "It always calms down after they leave." "Sure, it's quiet," he said. "But the chaos just keeps on going." He put down his knife and turned to me. "Did you see the meat case when you walked in?" he asked. "Honestly," I said. "I didn't. I tend to walk in with blinders on." "Yeah, well," he said, "take a walk outside and look at it. You tell me what you see." I did just that and walked out onto the sales floor. I knew exactly what he meant when I first saw it: empty spaces on the shelves, interspersed throughout the entire case. I laughed to myself as I walked back inside. "I see what you mean," I said as I returned to the wrapper. "It never changes," he said. The man had a deep, booming voice that could carry throughout the room even during its most crazy moments. "You've got that right," I said. "That's first shift for you," he said. "They don't worry about cutting what we need. They figure, 'oh, second shift will fix it.' That's why nothing's ever done. I'm telling you, Dan, this is a good place to work. It's a good job. The thing that ruins it is the people." I had to agree with him. I usually kept my mouth shut during conversations like these, contributing only a little. If there was one thing I learned about my words, is they could be used against me. "It's the diffusion of responsibility," I said. "You could call it that," he said. "I say it's poor handling of tasks and pure laziness." I liked Dennis. He never worried about what anyone thought of him and always spoke his mind. I envied that aspect of his to an extent. I was always told lack of caring would come in time. I had been hearing that for years, and it still didn't seem to kick in. On the other hand, I could only imagine what could spark that sort of looseness at the mouth. God knows I didn't want to find out.
# I always smoked on my breaks. I looked forward to it during each shift. Normally, I would combine my habit with either talking to Nicole, writing in my notebook, or simply observing the town of Fernhampton as it slowly quieted down after another busy day. I decided to partake in the latter, since Nicole was out with a friend, and I conveniently left my notebook in my car. I had lived in Hilldale County my whole life. Throughout the years I had noticed the changes undergone in Fernhampton alone. The town used to be synonymous with the small rural towns one would hear about in country songs. That changed over time, though. Strip malls now filled the landscape; restaurants, banks, clothing stores, just to list a few. Naturally, there was no longer a movie theater in sight. There used to be, but not the kind worth going to. We always had to drive at least twenty minutes to get to a decent cinema. That was okay, as I saw it. At the rate things were going, there'd be a cinema eventually. On top of God knows what else. All in all, the changes didn't bother me. They made the town livelier, something that had been missing during most of my childhood. As I observed the parking lot, I noticed the increase in empty spaces. It was about that time, where the clientele of Peak began to simmer down. My favorite time of the night. I would be able to finish my shift in peace, like I always did.
# When I got home, I was surprised to see Mom still up and in the kitchen. Usually, she was in her room by this time. I took off my shoes in order to avoid tracking meat residue around the house. "Hey," I said as I entered the kitchen. "Hey," she said. "How was your day?" I asked, taking a seat. She repeated the action. "Eh, the same," she said. "I just put the dogs in for the night." We had two little dachshunds named Pepper and Holly. I had to admit, despite my hesitation to grow close to animals, they had a way of rubbing off on me. Even if they were a pain in the ass sometimes. "Same here," I said. "Richard tell you about our night out last night?" "Oh, yeah," she said. "I was so glad for him to get out of the house for once this summer." I laughed. "Tell me about it," I said. At first hesitant, I decided to tell her about my opportunity at The Source. I figured now was a good time to talk about it a little. "That's good," she said. "You're a good writer, Dan. There's no doubt about that. Did you tell your boss?" "Not yet," I said. "I'm still waiting for it to be official. But when that happens, it'll be my great pleasure to break the news. I have to admit, I've been waiting a long time for this." "And it's paid?" she asked. "This internship?" "Yeah," I said. "Actually, from what I've read, a lot of them are paid now. That's always a plus. I know Dad will be happy about that." "Yeah," she said. "I'm telling you. It's good you went back to school. With your mind, the way you think, that's the place for you to be." "I know, right?" I said. "It all seems to be coming together now. Thank God." "Good for you," she said. "Who knows? Maybe you'll writer about the crazy Francis clan someday. Can you imagine your uncle as a character in a book?" &nb