"CAAW, CAAW," shrieked the crow, waking Peter from another dreamless sleep. It rested on the power line that ran through the alley of his shitty Lakeview apartment building.
"Peter, close the window," his wife moaned, desperately hanging on to what semblance of slumber she still had. Peter slunk out of bed placing his two boyish feet on the hardwood and waddled over to the window.
"Shew, shew." He slammed the window shut. Nothing more would be bothering them through this window. He did the same waddle back to bed, laid his tiny head on the pillow, and the alarm went off, BLEEP-BLEEPING until he mindlessly swatted it. His eyes opened in slits and he stared at the clock, blaring red in the morning night. 6:30 AM. Time for work.
"I'll get the coffee going," said his wife, full bodied, getting out of bed.
He let out a sad sigh and propped himself out of bed again, shuffling to the bathroom. He turned on the shower, letting it warm up. These old buildings always took a minute or two. Peter stripped down to his skin and stared at his little boy's body, picking and prodding, running his hand over the thin stubble on his tiny face. His shadow on the shower curtain seemed to point and laugh at him in hysterics.
The shower fluctuated from cold to hot a few times, both freezing and scolding his skin. When he got out, the mirror was steamed over, causing him to wipe minute swaths of condensation away with his juvenile hand. With the towel tied around his waist, standing on a stool in front of the mirror, he ran the razor over his face. He only nicked himself five times this morning, promptly placing little pieces of toilet paper over the raspberry cuts.
When he emerged, his wife, Lily, bent down handing him his coffee. Her dark skin matched the color of the liquid in his mug. He kissed her good morning as they always did, and then placed the coffee on the side table next to the clock. One by one, piece by piece, he put on his little boy's suit. Peter chanced a sip of the coffee, but when it burned his tongue he jolted, spilling it on his dress shirt and tie.
"Damnit, son of a -- Lily, do I have any clean shirts?" he said, staring at his empty closet. His shadow danced in the lamp light still feeling the burn of the hot beverage.
"Sorry Pete. They're all still at the cleaners. I'll pick them up this afternoon," she called from the living room, looking at her computer. She always seemed to be looking at her computer.
"I spilled my coffee all over this one."
"Just run some cold water over it. It'll come out."
Peter finished his coffee, searing his throat, kissed his wife and hurried down the stairs to the front walk. The cool spring air stung the swatches of paper scattered on his young face and immediately froze the skin touching the cold wet spot on his shirt. Parking in his neighborhood was never easy, typically causing him to park two to three blocks away. Today was no different.
When he finally got to his car he hoisted himself into the driver's seat, placed his miniature briefcase on the passenger seat. Putting the phonebooks under him to give him enough height to see over the dash, Peter then strapped the used up cigarette cartons to his feet. He pulled out of his spot on the residential city street, turning onto the main drag to sit promptly in bumper-to-bumper traffic, almost like a ritual. It would take him thirty minutes to go ten blocks. Lily told him he should just walk. But showing up to work without a car -- what would they think? Besides, he would need it later if he was so lucky to make an appointment with a potential client. Peter turned on the radio and looked at the clock. 7:45 AM. He was going to be late.
As he trudged along, inch by inch down Main Street, he listened to John-boy and Mike, a local morning show he'd found himself habitually listening to while on the way into work. He didn't particularly like either of them, but it kept him from thinking about where he was going and what he'd have to do once he got there.
"So, John-boy, you hear about this crocodile people have been spotting in the sewers?"
"Hear about it? Mike I saw him. Big SOB. Just saw his tail, but I can only imagine how big the rest of him is."
"You saw him? I'm calling BS."
"No, I did. Swear to God."
"Through the sewer drain on the corner of Screw You and Give Me A Break."
Peter hated how careful the disc jockeys had to be with their language, with all their SOB's, BS's, and F-you's. He knew what they really wanted to say. So just say it. Bitch, Shit, Fuck, Cunt, Cock, Twat. He wanted them to stop acting like it was some children's program and grow up already.
"Crocodiles live in salt water, you idiot. If you saw anything, it'd be an alligator."
"What's the difference, at the end of the day they're both big, scary and could bite your hand off."
As the DJs continued their banter Peter zoned them out. He stared at all the cars packed so tight, starting and stopping, somehow going nowhere. He often times had fantasies, childish as they may be, of stepping out of his car, extending his arms, catching the breeze, and flying past everyone, zipping between cars, cartwheeling over their hoods. He looked at his shadow on the pavement out the window. It seemed to be taunting him, sticking out its tongue with both hands flayed on either side of its head.
Peter sprang awake to the sight of two bare feet smacking the windshield with a clap. He arched his neck to look above his car. The feet were limp, showing no effort, dragging themselves up the glass. They were dark and callused and broken and free. Peter listened to the feet as they dragged past his roof. He looked around and saw he was at the "S" curve around the Ol' Hangin' tree. An enormous display of dead canopy and barren limbs. The base was thick and fat and twisted with roots that caused the Main Street expressway to swerve far out of the way.
No one had been hung on the tree in decades. But now… Peter looked to his rearview mirror as his car slowly trudged along in late morning traffic. He watched to see the feet once more, and then, once he got far enough away, he might see the body. The sad limp thing that carried no more purpose. No more pain. No more obligation.
The feet came sweeping down the rear window. Then Peter could see his legs, his back, his face. A black man. A homeless black man. A famous homeless black man. None other than "Jinx" Jenkins. Resident panhandler on the SkyTram, he'd made a name for himself throughout the valley. The foulest smelling man alive. Generations would grow up ignoring the man on the train. And now, there he was, dead, lynched, on the Ol' Hangin' tree no less. Peter wanted to climb out on top of his car and cut the man down, but the flow of traffic was speeding back up, and soon his car was far past the scene. As the man shrank in the rearview, Peter's heart broke. This was no death for a man. Even a man such as Jinx. He deserved more than that. We all do, he thought.
When Peter finally arrived at BigCorp Tower, he went through the process of unstrapping the cartons from his shoes, grabbing his briefcase, and tossing his keys to the old parking attendant, Smee. But the white haired man was too busy counting the day's coffers and dropped the boy-man's keys. He said, "Oops," without looking up or any semblance of emotion.
One of the three elevators was out of order. It always seemed to be out of order. Therefore, it left only two to service the whole of the building. Going from the parking garage in the basement to the 51st floor would take quite a long time. He looked at his watch. 8:17 AM. He was already seventeen minutes late.
Floor after floor, people piled in and forced their way out of the tiny elevating box. Peter, crammed in the back below the rest of the towering adults, could only wait patiently, a hostage of his own commute.
When the doors finally opened on the 51st floor, he was one of only a few people left in the lift. Peter skulked off, keeping an eye out for his boss. He kept close to the lifeless grey cubicle walls, nodding and spitefully smiling at the other workers that took notice of him. He felt he was in the clear as he rounded the back corner, near the window, where his desk was. But as he entered, his boss, James, was sitting in Peter's seat.
"Late again, Pete. Third time this week."
"By my watch," he stretched out his arm exposing a large fancy wristwatch he loved to show off, "I count three. You want to argue with me on this?"
"Right. Well, I need you to talk to the Great Big Little Panther people today. They called and I think they want out of their contract. We can't loose them, Pete. They're a small outfit, but every account matters. If they go, it's your job. Call them first thing. Also, a new lead came in. Some business called Darling & Company. Never heard of them. Mom and Pop shop I'm guessing. But if you can sell them, do. Your numbers are hurting and word is we're scaling down at the end of the month. Right -- get to it." He turned to leave and then added, "Oh and Peter. We sell clocks here. Showing up on time might be to your benefit -- And for god sakes man, wear something with a little less coffee stain, and a bit more tie next time." And with that he left.
Bella, a bombshell with her hair pulled back in a bun, popped over the wall of Peter's cubicle. "What'd I tell you, Pete? Don't mess with the big guy. He's just looking for a reason to make people walk the plank. Not only does he take all the credit for himself, he'd steal your shadow and call it his." Bella was Peter's only friend at work. Though she was pretty, with skin that appeared to emit a natural sparkle, the friendship was simply platonic -- from Peter's end anyhow.
"He can have it." Peter climbed up on his swivel chair, grabbed the phone and started dialing.
Peter turned in his chair to look out his window at a crow -- the same crow? -- on the ledge of the building, outside the window. It looked at him and then tapped its beak on the glass. It was calling to him, pleading with him. He felt himself pulled towards the window. Suddenly he heard a voice on the other end of the phone.
"Oh, yes, sorry, I'm here. This is Peter Mann calling for Mr. Panther. Is he in?"
Peter looked back at the window, but the bird was gone.
After a battle on the phones, Peter was finally able to subdue the Panther people into staying with BigCorp, but not without some serious casualties to their original contract. He was forced to sacrifice ten percent of his commission, which would hurt come the time rent was due. But the important thing was he kept the customer. Of course it helped that Mr. Panther was his father in-law.
Bella and Peter went down to the galley to fill up on more coffee. Peter had forgotten to eat breakfast before he'd left home and was now feeling the results. His stomach cramped-up as he searched through the cabinets where the communal snacks were supposed to be. Unfortunately, the only thing left was an expired cinnamon bun in plastic wrapping. It was stale and would have been more use as a door stop than a meal, but Peter powered through it.
"Pete, you okay? You don't seem yourself lately." Bella stirred in her powdered creamer.
"Fine. I just -- you ever feel there should be more?"
"I don't know. To life. Than this," he said throwing out his arms. "A job, a commute, a paycheck. I can't remember the last time I smiled. I mean genuinely smiled. You know, 'cuz something was funny or I was actually happy." He looked out over the thick forest of cubicles. "I feel so damn cooped up all the time." He gnawed on the petrified pastry. His shadow, behind him on the cabinets, mimed his hand into a gun placing it against his head, pulling the trigger.
"Yeah, Pete, sure I do. I go home and watch the same crappy shows with my finches, eat the same four microwavable meals. Read a chapter or two out of my book, by the same writers, with the same shitty romance plotline. Then, I get up and come back to work, and do it all over again." She looked at him, her face melting from cold grimace to warm affection. "To be honest, being around you is the highlight of my day."
"Uh-huh. Right. Thanks, kid. That's sweet." He said it to her without noticing her gaze. Rather he was watching James post a list of the latest sales numbers for the office on a bulletin board. He tossed the half eaten desert in the trash and glided down the hall.
Bella smirked at his lack of recognition and followed after. They, along with a few other desperate souls huddled around the board to see the latest figures. With hopeful enthusiasm everyone started at the top and then slowly worked their way down. Peter found his name third from the bottom.
What am I going to tell Lily, he thought. I can't afford to lose this job. Her whole life she'd been raised like a princess, spent like a princess, ate like a princess, and expected nothing less than to eventually be a queen.
Bella put her delicate hand on Peter's little shoulder. "Pete, I hear they're cutting the bottom five. What'cha gonna do?"
Peter felt a cold shiver of fearful adrenaline surge through his body and up his neck. "The only thing I can do I guess. What was that number for Darling & Company?"
The roadways in Lakeview were full of bridges and underpasses, tunnels, underground roadways, under underground roadways, medians, one ways, and of course round-a-bouts that people seemed to enter and never leave. The result was that driving in the "City by the Lake" added up to a series of miniature headaches and a chorus of horns.
Peter hated driving. His car was shitty -- it smelled of mildew and fast food -- the worst part of it being that there was no air conditioning. He never quite understood why they called it "rush hour" if it lasted all damn day. If I could only fly, he thought, like an autumn leaf on the breeze. His shadow sat shotgun, smoking a cigarette -- a habit Peter did not share -- letting the smoke tumble out the window, adding to the exhaust.
When Peter finally made it to Darling & Co. he was lucky enough to find a parking space right up front. His appointment was for 1:30. He was twenty minutes late. He locked his car -- God knows why, he thought -- and went in to the one story, unassuming business front with glass doors on the Southside of town.
Inside was a waiting room with cheap carpets, a laminate fake-wood desk, and old dusty metal chairs. At the desk was a broad woman with bushy grey hair, and some heft to her frame. Her name plate read: Nancy Duenna. She wore tiny round glasses on the tip of her nose and her hair up in a kind of Victorian bun.
"May I help you," she barked at him.
"Hi, I'm from BigCorp Time Piece division. Here for an appointment. Running behind due to traffic. Is it too late to see someone?" He held his miniature hand out as a peace sign, but she only sniffed at it and looked at him suspiciously.
"You're late. Doesn't speak well for a man selling clocks."
"Sorry for that. Like I said, traffic. But if there's any way someone from your company might be able to squeeze me in, I'd be grateful."
She got up from her desk, slowly, and said, "I'll see what I can do." Then she lumbered out of the waiting room and shut the door.
Peter's stomach turned. He'd only managed a few bites of the sweet roll before giving up on it, and now he was on the verge of full-blown blood sugar meltdown. He would need to eat something soon, but he'd need to close this deal first. His legs were weak and buckling. He fought off the urge to sit down, imagining himself standing back up with his backside covered in dust from the old chairs.
Moments later the shaggy woman came hulking back into the waiting room. Taking a seat at her desk with a sudden relief, Peter could tell she was happy to be off her feet. He imagined that the woman moved as minimally as possible. Behind her came a young woman with chestnut curls, a delicate frame and girlish face. She wore a tight white blouse and skirt that went down to just below her knees. She was gorgeous. He felt dizzy looking at her. He couldn't tell if it was her or his grumbling stomach. Outside, Peter heard a crow caw. Peter's shadow, stretched out on the carpet below, froze stiff and then melted into a black amoebic mass.
"This is our Office Manager, Miss Wendy. She takes care of all the office-related supplies. This is the one I was telling you about." She looked directly at him. "He's late."
"Nana, please. It's alright. I was hoping he wouldn't show up on time anyway. I got backed up with some other work." The young woman looked down at the boy's starry eyes. "This works out just fine, to be completely honest. I was just about to grab lunch. How'd you like to join me and show me what you have available, Mr. -- "
"Peter. That sounds amazing. Haven't eaten all day."
Wendy went to get her purse and the both of them left; the receptionist giving him a suspicious look the whole way out. Peter stuck his tongue out at her. They walked down the street full of industrial warehouses and generic office complexes. Above them, the Main Street overpass stretched out, casting its shadow over the exhausted side of the city.
"There's a neat little taco joint around the corner up here. How's that sound?"
"Honestly, I'd eat a sweaty sock if you put ketchup on it. Tacos sound amazing."
As they walked, Peter spun the wedding ring on his finger, doing his best not to think of the woman as anything more than a possible sale. But every so often he'd glance over and catch a look at her backside, and the prospect of keeping it all business became that much more difficult.
Peter loved his wife. But he'd always thought that he would love her even more if he hadn't been pressured into marrying her by her father. She was a beautiful woman -- that was not up for discussion. She lifted him up when he was feeling down. She gave him a push when he felt stuck. She even saw to it that he ate well and took care of himself. But recently, they'd fallen into a devastating routine that made them feel more like people splitting the rent than man and wife. When he complimented how she looked, Lily took no notice. When she wore something sexy, Peter was too tired. They took turns doing various chores around the house, not realizing they avoided each other -- him watching TV, her playing with her computer. People called it a rut, but they were in a chasm.
Wendy led him to a food truck parked on the side of the road. They ordered their food, and took a seat at a plastic table under a tent in a dirt parking lot. "You're gonna love this. Best tacos in the city. You know they're authentic because they use actual cactus. You're not allergic to cactus are you?" Her eyes sparkled at him in the shade.
"Not that I know of. Not sure I've ever had it."
When their food arrived Peter couldn't stop himself and dug in. Sitting down at the table the difference in their height seemed to diminish. He was closer to looking her in the eye now. He knew this was the only way he was able to sell. He took a bite of his taco and a glob of hot sauce stained sour cream found its way to the crook of his mouth.
"So, Miss Darling, clocks. BigCorp is offering new customers a 15% discount when they purchase ten or more clocks. We've got several models -- both digital and analog. But we also have oscillators, pendulum, balance wheel, water clocks, hourglasses, and even sundials. Each one comes in an array of different styles to fit the esthetics of your workplace. We have a lifetime guarantee to all of our timepieces and a no hassle, money back insurance policy available if that's something that interests you. My personal favorite is --"
He'd fallen into his old tell of not looking the customer in the eye.
"You don't have to try so hard. We've got plenty of clocks throughout the office, but I'm sure there's a few that could use replacing." She smiled at him and his face went red. "Honestly, I needed a break. I feel so damn cooped up in there sometimes. You were a great excuse."
"Well, glad to have been of service." He smiled back at her, twisting his ring.
There was an awkward pause as Peter glanced down at his shadow on the gravel take her shadow, dipping it like Scarlet O'Hara and planting a forceful kiss on it.
"Now that we have 'the business' out of the way… I don't want to go back to work yet. Tell me something 'bout yourself?" She reached over with a napkin and wiped the glob from Peter's face.
He sucked in a big breath, trying to figure out what a woman like this might find interesting about him. "Not much to tell, really. Grew up playing pirates and Indians, went to Ivy Pines for college. Joined a fraternity, Lambda Beta -- called ourselves the Lost Boys. When I got out of school, wasn't too sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I kinda fell into selling clocks at BigCorp. I wake up, brave the commute, work all day, go home and watch TV, and do it all over again in the morning."
"Fascinating." Her tone was facetious, but her smile said she was giving him a hard time.
Peter blushed again. "What about you?"
She sat up, her chest jutting out. "Well, let's see. Grew up the oldest with two brothers. You might of heard them on the radio. 'John-boy and Mike.'"
"Yeah I listen to them on my way into work."
"Yep. Those are my brothers. I went to Ivy Pines, too. Go Jackalopes!" She smiled at him.
"Go Jackalopes." He smiled, realizing that in that moment he was happy.
"I didn't go Greek, but had quite a bit of fun at the parties. After, I took a job here at Darling. My brothers didn't want to take on the mantel of the family business, so it kinda came down to me." She looked away for a moment. Peter thought to himself that this was the first time she'd stopped smiling since he met her. His face dropped, matching hers.
"Not what you want to do?"
"It's fine for what it is. My family is counting on me to keep it going. But honestly -- and I know how terrible this sounds, women's lib and all -- but I always kinda just wanted to be a mom." She looked back at him and the sparkle returned to her eye.
"Today, on the way into work a man lynched from the Ol' Hangin' Tree was dragged across the top of my car. It was Jinx Jenkins." He wanted to say more but he couldn't. Something about this detail was important, he knew, but wasn't sure why.
A few yards off, a crow landed on the chain link fence in the parking lot. It cawed.
Peter walked Wendy back to her office where she picked out ten new clocks. On the walk back he wondered why he'd omitted being married. He considered telling her, but the moment had passed and if he brought it up now it would feel awkward. In her office, windows looked out to the main floor where a few workers sat at desks, in front of screens, talking on phones.
"What do you do here, anyway?"
"Embroidery. Mostly for large corporate clients." She said it as she filled out the paper work, standing at her desk. She had the presence of a woman that knew her job well. A confidence that you only find in resistant leaders. She was well put together in her appearance and demeanor, which Peter found impressive. Bending over, he could see down Wendy's blouse to where her cleavage came together in a soft valley. He gulped and looked away.
"I gotta be honest. You may have just saved my job with this sale. Thank you."
"My pleasure. Thank you. Now we'll have clocks in the office that all run at the same speed."
Peter put his hand out for a shake, but she did not return it.
"I really enjoyed meeting you, Peter." She looked out the window to the workers occasionally glancing in at them. She blushed and said, "This is probably really unprofessional of me to say," she stopped to look away, gathered herself and continued, "but I feel like we went on a date more than a business lunch. I feel like I owe you a kiss. Is that crazy?"
Peter went warm all over. His body tensed up.
"I can't, of course. There's just something adorably lighthearted about you. So I'll tell you what, take this, and know it's from my lips to yours." She reached out finally and took his hand in a shake, placing something in his palm. Something small.
Peter blushed at her words. He hadn't felt this excited in years. "I'm not sure what to say. I barely know you -- but yeah, what we just had was anything but a business meeting." He took the small thing and placed it in his pocket. "How 'bout I call you some time?"
She bit her bottom lip. "That'd be nice. I'd like that."
When Peter got back out to his car he reached in his pocket and pulled out the thing, resting it in his palm. It was a thimble. Small and silver and covered in dimples. He squeezed it with a smile and put it back in his pocket.
When he got home he made love to his wife. Neither one of them was present. Their minds were in faraway places. Places they could enjoy the obligation of matrimonial bliss. Places that made them happy and smile. Before he fell asleep he put the thimble on his side table, making sure it was the last thing he saw before he drifted off.
That night Peter dreamt for the first time since he could remember. The wind was rushing past his face, tossing his hair in every direction. He was light as a feather -- no, lighter. He only had to reach out and give in to the breeze and he was soaring like a leaf, gliding above the roof tops, dancing amongst the clouds.
There was something in his hand. Another hand. It was Wendy. She was in a silk gold sleeping gown that came down just below her buttocks. Peter was also in his pajamas. They had a bird pattern on them. He'd been forced to buy them in the children's section. Normally he was embarrassed at the thought of anyone seeing him in them, but something was different. He felt… joyous, exultant, euphoric. Deep in Wendy's eyes he swore he saw a fluttering of sparks. The mere thought of her made him tingle.
As they rode the wind, Peter looked down at their shadows on the ground. They looked like two crows flying side by side.
And then his alarm went off.
He went through his morning routine. Poking, prodding, shower, shave, toilet paper on his cuts; dressing, coffee, spill, shirt change, bagel. He looked outside and the sky was a dark charcoal. The pitter-patter of rain came from puddles growing larger in the alley. He grabbed the thimble, from the bedside table, and stared at it for a second. And then shifted his attention to his wife's vacant, mussed-up side of the bed.
In the living room, Lily was on her computer again. She sat on the couch, cross-legged, with the computer resting on her lap.
"Lil, before I go, I need to talk to you about something."
She didn't look up. "What's up?"
"Yesterday I was meeting with a client and -- do you mind? I'm trying to tell you something important here." She was always on her computer. She never talked to him anymore. He couldn't help but feel she was more interested with that damn screen than her own husband.
"What? Oh, sorry." She closed the laptop.
"Anyway. I'll cut to the chase. Last night. What was that? It felt so mechanical. There was no pleasure there. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it felt like both of us were thinking about anything but what we were doing." He was eye to eye with her sitting down. They were on equal footing.
"I suppose. I mean, I'm not gonna lie. Sometimes I have to think about other things when we do it. We both do." She swept onyx locks out of her face.
"That's what I'm talking about. Why are we doing this? Sometimes I wonder if the only reason either one of us is here is because your father made us. I love you -- please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. It's just, while I love you, I'm not so sure I'm in love with you. And I'll be honest, I get the impression you feel the same." He diverted his eyes. Voicing his feelings and staring at her was simply too much at one time.
Her computer chimed and on impulse she opened it.
"What the hell are you doing on that thing all the time?" Peter walked over and looked at the screen. There was an instant message box open. She was writing with someone called XXTigerTamerXX. He'd sent a message saying: Cupid's Arrow Motel, 2:30. Clothing discouraged. ; )
Lily closed the screen on impulse. A pang of fear in her eyes quickly turned to anger. "You know what, Peter, you're right. I do love you. But as you put it, I'm not in love with you. It's been like that for a while now. How you're only noticing now I have no idea. It's like you're constantly on autopilot. When I married you it was to someone who made me laugh. Someone who made me feel like a kid again. I couldn't see myself with anyone but you. But let's be honest. We're not those people anymore. I need someone who can provide for me, not barely squeak by every month."
"You're seeing someone." It wasn't a question. Peter had to say it out loud in order to process it.
"I am. But let me ask you this. Who were you with last night? Because it certainly wasn't me." She got up now, her tall womanly frame looming over him.
He didn't answer her. In fact, they were silent. Standing in front of one another, just staring, they were unable to say anything more to one another. The silence lasted until his alarm to head out sounded on his phone.
"I'm sorry. I want you to know I did my best. This just isn't the life I ever wanted." He turned, grabbed his things, and then went out the door.
When he got to his car a crow waited for him on the hood. "Caw," it yelled at him and then flew off. In the gray of the day, his shadow was nowhere to be found.
When he got to work, a spot right up front where James usually parked was open. He considered the rebuke he'd get from his boss, decided he didn't care, and took the spot. The elevator was fast today, going straight to his floor without a single stop on the way. The lack of people made him feel special. As if he owned the elevator. The privilege of ascending to the sky was solely his.
The moment he got off the elevator he could tell something was different in the office. People were all huddled in groups, talking in relaxed, jovial tones. When Peter got to his cubicle he asked Bella what was going on.
"You didn't hear? Boss' hand got bit off!"
"What do you mean, 'bit off?'"
She leaned over the gray divider between them with a girlish excitement. "Yeah. So what I've gathered, he was coming out of a dinner with some clients last night when his wristwatch came undone and slipped into a storm drain. So he gets down and reaches his arm down, when -- SMACK -- his hand gets taken clean off by something in the sewers. A couple people think it was that crocodile people keep talking about. I guess he lost a lot of blood. Crazy, right?"
"That's absurd," he scoffed. "It was probably some piece of metal in the sewer."
"Regardless, son of a bitch finally got what was coming to him." She said it with a smirk.
His mind was chaotic and unfocused. Peter's head went to the Cupid's Arrow Motel, then to his wife giggling as she typed, and then finally to Wendy wiping his face. He looked to James' dark office. "So it's safe to say he's not coming in today?"
She laughed. "Pete, you're a riot."
"Right, well, if anyone asks, I'm out meeting with a client." He gathered his things up and started for the elevator.
"Oh, yeah, how'd that thing with Darling & Co. go yesterday?"
"About to find out," he called to her moving past the pit of cubicles.
Wendy came out of her office and was immediately surprised by the sight of Peter leaning against his car.
He held up a finger wearing the thimble as a hat. "Thought I might come back and try and exchange this for the real thing."
She blushed with a wide, embarrassed smile.
"What'd'ya say? Wanna get a drink?" he said.
"I know just the place."
Peter sat, propped up by a pillow, smoking a cigarette, and staring at her exposed back. It had a narrow valley that tapered off from her shoulder blades, sloping down, and then melting into the rise of her buttocks, half covered by a thin sheet. He could hear her tiny breaths as she slept in the dim light from the bathroom. Peter's shadow was projected on the opposite wall taking a curtain call for his superb performance in bed. It filched the cigarette from Peter's hand, took a long pull, placed it back in his hand, and let out a large cloud of milky smoke.
Peter took a drag as well and ran his finger down the valley of her back. Everything had moved so fast to this point. Jinx swinging above traffic, the conversation with Lily, the news about James' hand, drinks with Wendy… He tried to remember what it was that Wendy had said to him at the bar. Face it, Peter, you're not happy. If you could do anything, what would you do?
He'd taken that as his cue to kiss her. Because in that moment it was all he could think to do. But he knew what she meant. He used the kiss to avoid the answer. And before he knew it, the kiss led them back to her place, having never answered the question.
What do I want? he thought. He liked this. Sitting in bed, naked, next to a beautiful woman. A woman that looked at him and made him feel ten feet tall. A woman that made him feel like a real person again. But what else? Certainly not selling clocks at BigCorp. Or for that matter, any job that would force him into that damn car again, wading through rush hour, wearing a button-up and a noose of his own. The word unhappy repeated in his head.
A flash of Jinx Jenkins' swaying body -- slack, vulnerable, and free -- burst in his head. He stubbed out his cigarette, caressed Wendy's back one last time and settled in to bed. His shadow turned off the bathroom light.
In the morning, after Peter and Wendy woke up to an enjoyable bout of morning sex, she kissed him goodbye and he went out to his car where he promptly found a boot. The sign next to his car read Permit Only. He had a few outstanding parking tickets, and they'd finally caught up with him. "Fuck!"
He pulled out his phone and, opening an app, requested a Ryde. The car was already pulling around before Peter could put the phone back in his pocket. The car was a rickety old station wagon that moved like it had a limp. Peter got in and told the driver to take him to Big Tower.
The driver was a young man with an old face. He still wore his letterman jacket from high school and had on a pork pie hat. His name according to the app was Puck. As soon as Peter was in and the car was put in drive, the car took off like a rocket, weaving through the cars on the road. Peter figured at this pace he would get to work on time for the first time in weeks. Whether he'd make it there alive was still to be determined.
The interior of the car was filthy. A layer of paper and plastic bags, cans, and cheeseburger wrappers covered every surface. Peter swiped the trash out of his way and took hold of the handles and seat.
"So, Ray, you been doing this long?"
"A couple months now. My analyst told me I had some deep rooted fears of being alone. Use to drive for ChowNow delivering food. Figured, I'm good at driving. There's people to talk to during Rydes. So I signed up, and here I am." His voice was excitedly nervous, like a child setting out on a new adventure. His hands gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles at ten and two.
"Impressive, Puck. Gotta say, wish I had the courage to face my fears like that." Peter jerked forward as the traffic ahead of them brought the car to a halt. A line of traffic was building up behind them, as they slunk on to the ramp for the Main Street expressway.
"Fuckin' traffic." He tried to change the subject. "So what do you do at BigCorp?"
"Do you like it?"
"Ha. Yeah, not exactly sure 'like' is the right word."
"That's too bad. You should always love what you do. Otherwise, why do it? I'm a writer by trade. Put at least twenty books into print. Just doing this because of what my analyst said." He gulped at the traffic in front of him. Peter thought about asking him what some of his books were, but the man continued on.
"The way I see it, everyone has what I like to call a 'vanishing point.' A position they want to see themselves in, way, way on down the line. An ultimate goal of sorts. No matter what it is, it's what's going to make you feel happy at the end of the day. Feel fulfilled. It's something you've gotta work for. But when you get there, you'll know you did right by yourself. A new car, a better relationship, become a famous baseball player, or even the best damn cabbie in the city. Now…" he held up his hand pointing his finger in the air, "sometimes we take side steps -- lousy jobs, bad relationships, what have you. But that doesn't mean you can't find your way back. Your vanishing point is always there. You just need to identify it and have faith. If you can do that, you're halfway there."
"Right, so how do you know what it is?"
"It might not make sense to anyone but you, but you'll know it when you know it. How much time do we have?" He leaned over and squinted at the clock. "Let me tell you a story. I have a writer friend, we'll call him Sam, that's been doing everything he can to make it as a writer. He's written a few books that have sold well, but nothing that's going to put him on the bookshelves of every family library. Anyway, Sam gets an offer to be the Editor-in-Chief of a big time literary press. This job would set him up. He was just starting to have kids, he was married -- money was tight. But if he took the job he'd have to more or less give up on writing his own books. So he comes to me and tells me his situation. And I turn back at him and tell him all about vanishing points and doing what's right for yourself. So I ask him, 'Is this job getting you closer to or further away from your vanishing point?'"
He drifted off, trying to switch lanes and loosing track of his thoughts. "And?"
"And? And. Oh, and! And so Sam goes home and talks it over with his wife. They deliberate about his options all night. The next day, he calls up the press and turns them down. Said, it was a great opportunity, but not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Still had stories to tell. Money ain't everything. If it's what you were meant to do, money will come. You just have to do it relentlessly. If you ease up for even a second, you'll fall flat on your ass."
"Hadn't really thought about it that way." Peter felt lighter for some reason. It was as if he'd been listening to a symphony tuning their instruments his whole life, and now the music was starting to come together. "Thanks. That's good advice." Peter stared at the old man's face. His eyes were focused on the river of cars ahead of him.
"Clearly selling clocks isn't what you want to do." They exchanged a look through the rearview mirror. "Any idea what is?"
"I've been asking myself that. I just met this great girl -- which is nice. But there's gotta be more out there. I've been commuting back and forth to the same crap job, putting up with the same crap work, squeaking by on the same crap paycheck for twelve years already. I haven't been happy in so long, I don't even remember what made me happy to begin with." He thought to himself for a moment staring out the window. A crow was gliding through the dim morning, floating over the tops of all the cars. "If I could do anything, I'd fly."
"So great. Now do it."
"It's not that easy, though. What about all the things in between where I'm at and my vanishing point?"
Ray looked to the rearview again and smiled. "Wise man once said, 'Sometimes you gotta jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.'"
By the time Puck got Peter to work he was half an hour late. But Peter didn't care. He gave the man a large tip and thanked him for the advice. Peter craned his neck up to look at the imposing tower before him. He imagined which window was his, so far up. A hint of sun broke through the clouds for only a moment before being swallowed up again. Peter regarded the man, driving away, and smirked. Something told him that even though he'd never see the man again, their conversation would stay with him for quite awhile.
Peter rode the elevator up, stopping at multiple floors along the way. But things were different. He wasn't swallowed up as usual. People got on and off, but they all gave the man his distance. His presence seemed to demand more space. With every floor he climbed, a kind of clarity began to take over his body. He felt light. As if his troubles were slowly molting away.
When he got to his floor he walked through the maze of cubicles with a carefree demeanor. He didn't care who saw him strolling in late. He wasn't afraid anymore -- of his job, his boss, his marriage, anything.
"Peter. Where the hell have you been? You're a half hour late dammit." James burst up from his desk, attacking Peter as he passed by.
Peter stopped and turned to James with a lighthearted smile. "Hey, James. Nice hook. Good look on you." He nodded at the prosthetic hook on James' left hand, and then added, "Cool. Well, see ya," and continued to his cubicle.
"You're lucky you got that sale at Darling. Otherwise you'd be out on your ass." James' threats dwindled out as Peter walked away. "The Big Little people wouldn't want to hear about this. You're not long for this business, Pete. Be a lot easier if you just grew up already and realized you don't belong." James reached for the door handle with his hook, stopped, and then frustrated with his impairment, closed the door with his good hand.
Peter sat down at his desk, spinning in his chair. Bella's head popped over the wall.
"Pete, you okay? You seem… different."
"Great. Never been better. Just got some great advice is all. You know, the kind that really changes your perspective on things."
"I've just never seen anyone give James the brush off like that. You might want to lay low. He's pretty pissed about his hand." Her face pursed with concern.
Peter stood on his chair, now eye level with the gorgeous blond. "Thanks for the heads up. You're cute." He leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek. Stunned, her face went flush. Peter's shadow popped its collar and slicked back its hair on the cubicle wall. Bella sat back down, dazed.
Peter plopped down in his chair, letting it spin until it came to a rest facing the window. Outside was the crow again. It looked right at him and cawed. Then it turned and plunged off the ledge, swooping back up.
He got out of his chair and tentatively stepped up to the window. Peter undid the latch holding it shut and slid the bottom half open. A gust of wind rushed into the office, rustling papers. The other workers poked their heads up from their cubicles. James hurried out of his office to locate the disturbance just in time to see the tiny figure leaping off the ledge to his vanishing point.
"You hear 'bout that homeless guy that hung himself on the hangin' tree? Sayin' it might be a homicide," the man said as he pulled out his wallet.
"Would you look at that?" the hot dog vendor said passing the encased meat to his customer. The customer turned to look in the way of the vendor's stare. High in the sky the figure of a little boy appeared to be doing cartwheels in the light of the full and joyful sun. As the shadow tore across the sky they could hear a crow singing in the distance.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, J. Ryan Sommers. All rights reserved.