Jim awoke to sunlight crawling through the blinds and into his bed. The rays were warm but not piercing, having been dulled a bit by the haze that hung over White Buffalo. He hadn’t woken to the sun on a weekday in years. Instinctively, he reached for the alarm clock next to the bed but found it unplugged. A yellow sticky note covered the face.
Jogging. Back soon. I love you. – A
He smiled, thinking of her pounding the pavement in her stretchiest, most neon running outfit. For as long as he had known her, she had never been more than five pounds overweight, yet still, she trained happily as if for a surprise marathon. He loved this about her – how she worked out because it felt good, not because she felt bad. Jim, on the other hand, had begun the long march to a beer gut and high blood pressure.
He searched for motivation but instead found a snarl of hunger in its place. He rolled out of bed and made his way towards the closet, pulling on a wrinkled and slightly sour shirt from the floor. Henry Davidson’s approach to sales called for his employees to be in a suit and tie at all times, so Jim had only a handful of casual clothes through which to rotate. The assortment of jeans he owned had begun to pinch around the waist, so he reached instead for a folded pair of sweatpants near the back of the closet. He cinched the drawstring tight around himself, completing the uniform of the unemployed.
Downstairs, the kitchen was still a wreck from Amelia’s baking spree the night before. The island countertops carried a layer of flour and cinnamon. The burgundy splotches in the dusting – evidence of sloshing red wine – was further evidence of a visit from Rebecca, who insisted on parking in his spot in the garage and staying well past midnight to recount every one of the latest scandals. Near the sink, a tower of three neatly-packed Tupperware containers sat stacked full of snickerdoodles, bound for some bake sale of which he was unaware.
He poured a glass of milk and pilfered a cookie while inspecting the mess. His mind wandered in reverse.
After college, he had been immediately recruited to work for a large insurance firm selling policies over the phone. Unlike many of his classmates, he lacked the universal pride that accompanied every Bachelor’s degree these days. To him, a job was a job, and the company had briefed him thoroughly on their fast-track to the top. What followed was a string of fast tracks to various false summits. Insurance had led him to mutual funds, then to investment properties. After a brief layover in car sales – perhaps the only affront to his framed diploma – he had landed with Lyle Davidson, who ran Spirit Accountability Services, Inc. with the same sort of gusto you’d imagine filled Mussolini’s boxer briefs with Italian pride. He had started Spirit in 1987 with the intention of selling absolutely nothing at the highest per diem rate possible. He and his lackeys preyed on companies with weak leadership and an unclear chain of command and restructured them for the greater good of corporate profit. Typically, this consisted of a Spirit employee coming in to fire half the tenured staff and slap new titles on the remaining team members to make everybody feel more valuable and – in theory – work just a little bit harder. The good company stooge who had recommended hiring Spirit in the first place usually landed something sexy and worthless like, “Executive Manager of Synergistic Efforts.”
In his two and a half years with the company, Jim had fired every type of person imaginable.
He had terminated dutiful secretaries who had weathered the hard years, account executives with rent-to-own televisions yet to be paid off, office managers with sleeping pill addictions.
Balding portfolio analysts, busty CPAs, postgraduate new hires, redundant bean counters, nimble-fingered file clerks.
Volunteer firefighters, weekend Little League coaches, rare book collectors, gardeners.
Devout Baptists, excommunicated Catholics, closet homosexuals, porn freaks.
Racists, Marxists, Maoists, Misogynists, and Red Sox fans.
In the end, he had even been extended the courtesy of firing himself – something known in Spirit Speak as a “mutually beneficial parting of ways.”
Finishing his milk, Jim wandered towards the garage, where the complexities of the Haskins’ lives together could be found on the cluttered hobby table that filled one corner of their garage. It was littered with half-hearted attempts, having started as a refuge and ended a graveyard. Amelia had christened it shortly after they moved in, excitedly rushing off to the local craft emporium to fill her canvas tote bag with hobbies familiar and exotic. She returned positively radiant, stocking the table with acrylic paint and air-dry clay, jewelers solder, and miles of yarn. Despite her best intentions, the piles of raw material never amounted to much and soon were joined by Jim’s deserted pursuits: fly fishing creel, a sleeve of high-performance golf balls, wood carving chisels. The only thing the two of them had ever committed to was each other, and it showed.
Jim surveyed the table with the intention of filling his newfound downtime with something productive. His eyes landed on a chunk of pine with “Hask” charred into it – the beginnings of a rustic nameplate to hang above the front door. He hadn’t measured and the first four letters filled the space that had been intended for seven. He abandoned the craft table; productive behavior wasn’t in the cards.
He jabbed the garage door switch, sending it groaning open and letting the morning air fill the stuffy space. In the morning light, an oil splotch stared back at him from the spot where his car should be. He cursed Rebecca silently, returning inside to fetch his keys and pull his car in from across the street before anyone could complain.
He had parked in front of Diane and Mitch Richardson’s house, knowing they likely wouldn’t notice, let alone care. They mainly kept to themselves, but they were decent people, and Amelia seemed to like them. But directly next to them was Brian Winters – Home Owners Association President, a retired military man, Defender of the Faith, world-class asshole, and the man cutting a path directly towards Jim’s car.
“Haskins. Haskins, Haskins, Haskins.”
“Hey Brian, how are you today?” asked Jim, stomaching a large helping of self-loathing.
“Well, Haskins, I’ll tell ya. I rolled out of bed to with a stiffy that could break ore in a gold mine, I had a breakfast fit for a king, and was just about to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the paper. Now how does that sound for an American Wednesday morning for ya?”
“Sounds pretty great, Brian. Glad to hear it.” He knew what was coming next.
“It was…it was, my boy. Until I look out that beautiful bay window there and see your goddamned Jap-Trap parked out here on the curb, in front of God and everybody. But, say, that can’t be, right? Because I know my pal, Jim Haskins, knows damn well there isn’t any street parking in White Buffalo. Right?”
Jim hated this act. He had starred in it countless times.
“Right, Jimbo? I mean a fine young man like yourself surely has to know that we park our cars in garages like civilized folk, so the whole damn neighborhood doesn’t have to look at them?”
“Yeah, Brian I do know that. I was blocked out. Won’t happen again.”
“Now, wait,” Brian took no notice of his answer, “maybe your garage door is broken? Say yeah that has got to be it. Is that it, Jimmy? But, it doesn’t look broken from what I can…”
“Shut the fuck up, Brian.”
The words had boiled up faster than Jim could stop them. Brian’s jaw hung open mid-sentence, and a confused rage began filling his eyes.
“The hell did you just say to me, Haskins? Because there’s no way you said what I think you just said.”
“I said, ‘Shut the fuck up, Brian,’” Jim repeated, louder and with a sharper edge, “but maybe you misheard me because there is no way an arrogant, crop-topped, nosey, blowhard like you could misunderstand such a simple request!”
The neighborhood lion stood stunned.
“You storm up and down this fucking neighborhood busting balls about lawn height, and non-native shrubberies, and the color of trash bags we put on the curb! Trash bags!”
Jim had begun to scream and was now berating his stunned neighbor. Up and down the street, doors had begun to open as curious ears picked up the tirade. Jim was unphased.
“At Christmas, my light strings weren’t stapled evenly. Last Halloween, I gave out non-approved brands of candy. And now you are going to sit here and give me shit for parking in front of a house that doesn’t even belong to you? You’re an asshole, Brian. The only reason anybody ever voted you president of this neighborhood is that you’re the only one of us that gives a shit. So thank you, Brian. Thank you so much for dragging yourself away from your History Channel marathons so you can give me shit out here in the street. Next time, I’ll park my car straight up your ass, you large-mouthed dick—”
Brian’s fist stopped the outburst, catching Jim under his left eye. The quick jab spun him halfway around and knocked him to a knee. Scrambling to his feet, Jim swung haymakers wildly while rattling off every cuss word, curse, hex, and insult he could think of. Brian avoided the fray long enough to reel back and deliver a boot to Jim’s chest. The wind left his lungs – silencing Jim’s yelling – as he was sent sprawling to the pavement.
“Now that’s about enough of that shit, you little turd,” spat Brian, “you ever try a stunt like that again, you’ll be eating through a straw for a year!”
Brian turned and headed back toward his porch, mumbling under his breath. On the ground, Jim’s breath returned to him bit by bit as he got to his feet and dusted himself off. The knee was blown out of the right leg of his sweats, and his face had begun to swell. He said nothing as Brian slammed his front door and the neighbors began to lose interest in the scene. Jim had dropped his keys during the scuffle; he quickly swooped down to pick them up.
The fire that was burning in his chest had yet to cool.
Moving quickly, he unlocked his car and threw himself behind the wheel. He could see Brian glaring at him through the window. Before jamming the car into drive, he rolled down the passenger side window and stuck his middle finger out defiantly. Then, mashing the accelerator to the floor, Jim hopped the curb and pointed the import sedan straight for the impeccably white mailbox labeled, “Winters.” Brian’s eyes widened and he began screaming inside the house. With a satisfying thud and crack, the mailbox post broke off at the base and was sent sailing over the top of Jim’s car.
“Bill me for it, you son of a bitch!” Jim yelled back.
Triumphantly, he turned over his shoulder to see Brian storming into the street after him, shaking a fist and screaming. Suddenly there was another thud, but no crack. Turning forward and slamming on the brakes, Jim frantically searched the area in front of the car for the source of the collision.
In her stretchiest, most neon outfit, Amelia lay in the street.