A New Familiar
by Eric Neher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
At what point does a slump stop being a slump and become a way of life? This question seemed to have attached itself to John Graves’ mind like a virus. He sat gridlocked on the northbound I-35 stretch of highway between Norman and Oklahoma City, stuck in a single-lane construction zone while the sun continued to rise to his right. The clock on the dashboard read 8:47 a.m. and, in fourteen minutes, he would be officially late. What struck him as strange was the fact that he really didn’t care. A few years and two wives ago, he would have, but something had changed. It was as if he had accepted the fact that his best days had come and gone.
This was certainly not how he expected his life to turn out. At three days over fifty, it had become very clear to him that to expect any more at this point would be delusional. But wasn’t that how he had spent most of his life, living in a self-induced fantasy? Maybe that was what was wrong; maybe all of the lies that he had told himself and to others were finally catching up to him.
A horn suddenly blared from behind, causing him to jump in his seat. The office was still a good ten miles away, and he had moved no more than fifteen feet in the last twenty minutes. At this rate, all of the leads would be gone by the time he arrived at the office, and he would be stuck there waiting for a call-in like some kind of siding-selling carrion feeder.
This had been happening more and more, as his boss Lisa had pointed out to him. John could do little else but sit on the receiving side of her desk while she berated him like an army sergeant drilling a weak-link soldier. She even looked the part with her hair done in a commando-like crew cut fashion. Her eyes were the color of frozen steel and seemed to cut right through him.
Lisa was fifteen years his younger but struck out with a fierceness that went well beyond her age. She was good at her job, even he had to admit that, often pointing at the sales plaques on her wall, forcing him to follow the path of her finger as it traced through the years, pausing on his name quite often at first and then moving on until he became nothing more than an afterthought.
“What happened to you?” she had asked him once. “Was it your wife?” Such a personal question, and if he thought for a moment that she cared for anything other than the bottom line he might have considered opening up to her. But talking to her was like hearing one’s Miranda Rights; anything he said could and would be used against him later in the court of termination.
“I’m just going through a slump,” he had told her. “All salesmen do.”
“Yes,” she said, “ but mosty of them make an effort to get out of it, you seem to be quite content living off of draw checks.”
“That’s not true. It’ll shake loose, it always does.”
“I know your wife left you.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” said John, again she was fishing.
“Well,” she said, “everyone’s numbers are up except yours. I can’t keep letting the others carry you.”
“It’ll shake loose,” he said again. “It always does.” But did he still really believe that?
The traffic finally began to move. The road repairmen were cutting the concrete curb, oblivious to the cars and trucks passing by. John looked over at the men, all wearing their orange safety vests, grinding away for their hourly wage. Once upon a time, he considered them to be no better than slaves with benefits; working their lives away for whatever the system allowed. But now he envied them. They would never have to worry about closing ratios or hitting their numbers in order to bonus. Their lives consisted of eight-hour days, one-hour lunch breaks and making sure that they didn’t drink too much after work so they could get up and do it all over again. It was a simple life and it was safe.
The parking lot was mostly empty by the time John finally pulled in. At 9:35, he pulled into a spot just outside of the front windows and sat for a moment, leaving the motor running. A light sweat had suddenly broken out on his brow as he turned the key in the ignition. This is what resignation feels like.
* * *
The cat had finished the last bit of food. Carol watched it begin to groom itself, licking its leg in that contorted posture that only a cat can do. She realized that she was holding her breath, expecting it to start gagging suddenly or flop around while the poison spread throughout its body. But she knew that death wouldn’t be that fast.
Then a shiver ran through her when she realized that she wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take for it to work and that she sure didn’t want the little snot dying in her yard. What would the police do then? Search her house most likely and find the Rat-X, then they would probably do an autopsy on the cat and determine that she was a murderer. Did they do autopsies on cats? That was just another thing she wasn’t sure of.
Carol reached for the broom and ran outside. The cat watched her for a moment with an almost amused expression and took one last swipe at a yellow rose then bolted back through the white pickets.
“Go on!” said Carol, waving the broom in the air. “Get on back home, and I hope it hurts!” The cat leaped up on the neighbor’s porch, glaring back at her with its yellow eyes. Carol bent down and picked up the empty bowl. She gave the cat another look and then turned and made her way back into the house.
The neighbor’s windows were dark, strangely dark for such a sunny morning, as if they were immune to light. The neighbor rarely came out of her house at this time of the day, probably because she was busy sleeping off whatever she had taken the night before. How did someone like that survive? How did they pay their bills? Most likely she came from some rich liberal family which would explain her abnormally big breasts; bought and paid for by Daddy’s money. Well, pretty soon that money would be paying for a small lot in the local pet cemetery; that is, if she didn’t just throw the little spawn into the trash can.
The bowl was washed, and Carol was reaching for a towel to dry it with when suddenly the cat began to heave. Its whiskered face drew up into a pained look. Its body went rigid when it struggled to stand up. Carol watched with fascination while the creature began to belly-crawl its way towards the doggie-door at the base of the entry panel. It stopped just long enough to let out a wretched cough and then began to vomit.
“I got you,” Carol whispered watching the cat drag itself into the house. A sudden scream split the afternoon air, sending a chill down her spine. It then occurred to her that she was very much alone and that she might have just pushed a very unstable person right off of the proverbial cliff.
Carol reached for the drawer to her right, opened it and pulled out the largest steak knife that she could find. The house next door went quiet. Carol backed away from the kitchen window, her heart pounding in her ears. What if the neighbor had a gun? She didn’t look like the type but, nowadays, who could know? It seemed like every day someone was being shot and for a lot less than what she had just done.
For a moment she considered making a run for the Escalade and just leaving. But where would she go? Carol forced herself to take a deep breath. An image of Jack’s lifeless eyes staring up at her flashed in her mind. The bitch might have lost her cat, but Carol had lost her husband, and if her neighbor wanted to make the situation worse well, so be it. Carol would be ready.
* * *
The front desk was empty, Cindy Chambers was either in the bathroom or out back, having a smoke. This was a good sign for John. He quietly turned to his right and made his way down a narrow hallway. His office was the third door on the left. He could hear muffled voices coming from the marketing room, their mechanical drones blending together, each one of them hustling from their headset. John gave a look back at the empty desk then walked into his office, quietly shutting the door behind him.
The room was a small 10 x 15 box decorated with knockdown textured walls coated in baby blue, not exactly the most uplifting color for someone who was supposed to go out there and make things happen. The floor was done in ceramic tile planks with an off-white color that was about as exciting as the walls.
John walked around his desk, flopping down hard into the chair. A sigh escaped him as he sat, watching the phone and waiting. It wouldn’t be long until someone realized that he was in. He would then receive the call to come to Lisa’s office, and the verbal lashing would begin.
Maybe this time would be the last, and for a moment he almost wished that it would be. He could always get another job selling siding, but would he? The thought of having to start over with another company filled him with dread, or maybe it was the thought of continuing in this business, no matter where, had his stomach suddenly twisting. Whatever the reason, he was certainly sure of one thing; he had lost the ability to lie to himself, and that was going to be a serious problem when it came to lying to others.
It was then that his phone rang. John looked at it for a moment and considered not answering it. Maybe he would just sneak right back out and jump into his car. He still had family out east. His sister was doing very well in Florida, selling real estate and, although John couldn’t stand her husband, he might be able to get along with him, at least for a while. The phone continued to ring.
“This is John.”
“So you are here,” said Lisa. “I need to see you in my office.”
“I’ll be right there,” said John obediently. He hung the phone up and sat there. Lisa was probably sharpening her claws and dusting off the plaques. Well, he could take a little more, but not much more and, if it became too bad, he would just stand up, offer her a handshake, which she would most likely decline, and then leave.
John would then speed-dial his sister, go to the bank and clean out what little savings he had left. His house now belonged to his second wife, and his apartment was month to month, so there would be nothing here to hold him back.
* * *
The house remained as lifeless as a corpse. Carol looked up at the clock on the stove, the steak knife still held firmly in her hand. Twenty minutes had gone by since the poisoned cat had slunk its way into the house. Maybe that was it, maybe the silly bitch was now too grief-stricken by her dead beast to do anything, or maybe she thought that it had just got into something on its own.
Carol had read somewhere that cats and dogs would drink antifreeze if given the chance and that many of them died. Well, regardless of whether her neighbor ever figured it out or not, the cat wouldn’t be crapping in her flower bed anymore and, for Carol, that was good enough.
She set the knife on the counter, then checked to make sure that the back door was locked, and made her way out of the kitchen. It was 9:30 in the morning, a little early for a nap, but Carol was exhausted; the stress of killing the cat had drained her. She would take a warm shower and lie down for a couple of hours. There were still some yellow roses left at the nursery, and now she could replace the ones that the cat had ruined and not worry that the cat might come back.
She paused just long enough to place her finger on the picture of Jack that hung on her hallway wall and then went upstairs.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Eric Neher