Note: the following is a short story. It has nothing to do with the news or whatever “culture” means and it is a commentary on exactly nothing.
For six years he told himself he would get a wall calendar, and scribble things on it, oh, and a notepad by the telephone, and underline the highlights of all of his messages, shit, and some business cards too – just when you start thinking business cards are obsolete, people always ask for them, in bizarre places and at inconvenient times, then when you say you don’t have any, their trust in you vanishes.
On New Year’s Day, he finally went and bought all these things, but of course they went unused. The calendar was there, immaculate and free of appointments, and the notepad by the telephone would have been the same if he hadn’t written a doomed grocery list that just said “lettuce.” And the business cards, composed in half an hour in the middle of the night and printed in a hurry, contained a typo, but he wouldn’t know it because they just sat there pitiful in that perfect brown box, sealed with a dusty strip of Scotch tape. But he’d use them someday. He just hadn’t been in a bizarre place at an inconvenient time yet.
After 6 p.m. on Fridays at the office, it was inevitably just him and Debbie down the hall. He didn’t like her, but he was familiar with her, which had become the same thing. He could hear her footsteps from a mile away because she hammered her feet down when she walked, like she was wearing boots, even though she hated boots. He felt sorry for her lately. She should have been someplace with big windows, but there she was, fumbling with her cigarettes, hunkered down in the forlorn depths of that tar stained back office. Then he heard the rhythm of her footsteps. She hollered at him.
“Do you love your mother, Skip Sullivan?”
She came closer.
“Do you love your mother, Skip Sullivan?”
“Oh. Okay. I mean, I sent her a card. It was two bears hugging and on the inside I said, hold on, I said she could stop complaining that she had no pictures of her kids as adults. Isn’t that cute? It’s her speed, I think.”
Debbie lit a cigarette and he stopped talking much for fear he might accidentally cough and then look weak and conversationally powerless, which he was anyway.
Debbie exhaled and grinned. “I was thinking! You always talk about moving back to Wilmington to hang around with your mom and force her to write down her fried chicken recipe. And you want to play Scrabble and all these other boring things.”
“Right! But you can’t do that this year. You’ve gotta wait until this place gets honest and admits it’s out of business. Pad the bank account and live like shit and dream about Wilmington.”
“Well,” he began, reaching for his business cards because he could only make 30 seconds of eye contact with Debbie before blushing, “well, shit is stretching it.”
“No it’s not, Skip Sullivan. You drive a 1998 Corolla and I’ve seen you roll dimes. You sit there with the radio on and you roll dimes and – look at your trash can! – house brand soda.”
“So what’s your big exit strategy?” he said, careful not to breathe in too deep from her cloud.
“Well, I want out as much as you, and I got an idea how we can get out tonight. Not 15 months from now in the middle of July when the A/C doesn’t work. Tonight. You know who Jim Tillman is?”
“I don’t know Jim Tillman.”
“Well, get ready for Jim Tillman. Jim Tillman used to own the Buick dealership, but he doesn’t anymore. He has a ranch house by the airport and he’s never there. He only spends three months a year there, in the fall. He’s a drunk, he paid off the highway patrol to cover up his four,” she held up the number on her hand and waved it in front of his face, “four DUIs, and he burned down those old farmhouses with his last one. Jim Tillman is an asshole.”
“So you’re gonna steal from him?”
“Nope. You are.”
“I’m listening,” he said, and he was, even though he had begun fidgeting with his collectible Jim Brown toy, in signature action pose. He was ready to listen but not entirely ready to make eye contact.
“There’s a door at the end of his office. It’s a glorified safe. You can just kick it in. There’s a bronze statue in there of some dead guy with his arms folded. It’s worth $250,000 and you get half. The rest will be split up between me and the boy who sells things for me. You can borrow my hand truck. It’ll be in and out. Nobody lives out there, there are no lights out there, no dogs out there, nothing. It’s just a decision you can make that puts you in Wilmington as soon as you load up a U-Haul, and gets me back to Jacksonville.”
Skip opened his mouth to offer a thousand pointed rebuttals but instead started coughing until he was red in the face.
“Really?” said Debbie, narrowing her eyes and puckering her nose.
He wanted to say something else to put the idea out of her head, anything else, but instead he just stared at her, coughing furiously, and found all his arguments to be futile and stupid. This was going to happen, and happen tonight, with or without him.
“What do I do, exactly?”
She leaned over his desk and took his notepad and pen, which disgusted him for reasons he didn’t understand. It violated his system or something. It was an idea that she was breaking. He’d have to get a new notepad.
“His house is by the airport, you probably know it – it’s huge, actually it’s sprawling, and it still has Christmas decorations up. You make a left past the carburetor place where those kids shot each other, and it’s two miles down. You go in, get the statue with my hand truck, and then… there’s a storage unit. I’m writing down street names.”
“How do you know about this office and this door and everything?”
“My boy knows about it. That whole wing of the house was an add-on, and he’s a contractor. You do the math.”
Skip nodded knowingly. “Contractors are pieces of shit.”
“Yep! And this one’s gonna get us out of here. Okay, so after you get the statue, you just have to get it to the storage unit, which is… it’s harder to find. You know Dead Coward Lane?”
“That the one with the abandoned prison?”
“It’s a museum now. Anyway, it’s a mile down from it.”
He started to say no, no to all this illegality, and why – why, Debbie? – did you defile my notepad, it served a spiritual function if not a practical one, but he coughed some more and noticed that she was the most beautiful woman in the world because she was four feet away from him and looking him in the eye and telling him to do bad things.
“I’ll do it. Do you have a tarp? Never mind. I’ll do it. Is there any risk? I mean, really.”
“You won’t leave a trace, Skip Sullivan.”
And then she left. Just stubbed out her cigarette and left. (A pointlessly theatrical gesture since she lived in an apartment overlooking a mall, within hungover walking distance from an Orange Julius.) He decided to wait in his office until 10 p.m. and then go straight there, and rip the whole thing off like a Band-Aid. Until 10 p.m., Skip Sullivan would be broke and nervous, and by midnight he would be a thief. One day later he would be in Wilmington.
Finally, after hours of drinking instant coffee until his heart was beating wrong, he got in his Corolla with the express aim of becoming a bad man. He fiddled with the radio for a few minutes and found all of the stations lacking. He was hoping for something vaguely like Motown, but sleazier. He was a dirtbag now, after all. He wanted dirtbag music. Lifestyle adjustments were to be made.
He passed the carburetor place and exceeded the speed limit a bit because he was Dirtbag Sullivan now. Dirtbag Sullivan wouldn’t abide 35 miles an hour in the country. Dirtbag Sullivan would go fifty on the backroads and 80 on the highways.
He got to the house, parked around back in the dirt, and put his work gloves on. There was a kennel for some dogs but there was no sign a dog had ever been there, and he got this feeling like something bad will happen, like something bad will happen – why hasn’t it happened? – like something bad will happen.
He tried the back door. Locked. No trouble for Dirtbag Sullivan. He ran at it a few times, then gave up and smashed in the window above the sink. The house immediately upset him. There was no way more than one person had ever lived there, and that one person was barely living. The master bedroom had no furniture in it. In the living room there was a couch that folded out and it was staring into the gaping maw of one of those huge old TVs that weighed a million pounds and had to be thrown away if you ever moved. A TV designed purely to host Super Bowl parties, owned by a man who had clearly never thrown one. Whiskey bottles were everywhere too, and they weren’t good ones. A lot of them weren’t all the way emptied. Some of them had Gatorade in them, with the little sugar granules stuck to the lids. It was the house of somebody who had probably died already.
He kept looking for the office, stepping over whiskey bottles and pizza boxes and cables going nowhere, checking door after door to rooms with no furniture. It was a needlessly big house that did not require the additional service of contractors. Skip spent too much time checking places he’d already checked for that office, and got so crazy that he was convinced he could hear music. Old cowboy songs. Gene Autry songs, probably from the last room he didn’t check. Your whole brain starts deceiving you when you’re in somebody else’s house and there are no lights on. But after flipping some switches and finding workable mood lighting, he found the right room, and kicked the right door down, and did everything right, damn it, yet there was no statue. There was something like an imprint where a statue could have been, or maybe a curio cabinet, or maybe nothing. Either way he left. That house wasn’t worth it.
He got his handgun out of its box in the trunk, which was hidden under old oil rags and a bunch of those real estate ads made up to look like newspapers. Dirtbag Sullivan didn’t hide his gun. He kept it right in his glove compartment, to ward off marauders that came too near his territory.
He got to the storage unit and put his gun in his jeans, like on TV, but it did him no good for he had no bullets. And there was nothing there besides. No sign of anybody. Eventually a truck went by. But something bad was absolutely and mathematically required to happen. Was he in the wrong place? Where was the danger? This was lonesome like a country cemetery. This was nothing. This was outer space. There was no oxygen here. It didn’t even cross his mind to check inside the storage unit where Debbie and that contractor got greedy and fought and screamed and died two hours ago. There wasn’t enough oxygen for that kind of exertion. All Skip Sullivan knew was he got there too late, so he left.
For two weeks, Skip went to work like it never happened. That usually does it. When something goes wrong, when something bad happened, you steady yourself against a wall of routine. You get up, shower, drive, and work. But he couldn’t work. He kept hearing the hammer of Debbie’s footsteps from down the hall. He kept hearing them even after the newspaper explained everything that happened in 382 words.
It got worse on Friday nights when he stayed late and drank his house brand soda while he looked up pictures of his old hometown. That’s when the hammer of her feet would get so loud it shook the walls and made him claw his hands into his desk. That’s when he had to leave. That’s when his eyes opened wide enough for the first time in six years, when he threw away his business cards, reached for his pen, spun his chair over to the wall calendar and wrote “MOVE TO WILMINGTON.” He underlined it three times, circled it too, and left. But it didn’t work. Every minute he spent in Wilmington was spent knowing she never made it to Jacksonville. Leaving didn’t help.