The Force Within
by John W. Steele
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Reggie Suggins knew something was wrong the moment he walked inside the condo he shared with Nora in Ponderosa Gardens. Nora, his wife, was gone again. Lately she spent most of her time at the gym. Reggie worked ten hours a day, six days a week at Lumber King, and he always arrived home around seven pm. Not long ago she’d have had a meal waiting for him when he got in, like a couple of hot dogs or a frozen pizza that she’d heat up in the microwave. But for a while now there’d been nothing on the table when he got home.
The pictures of them together that they shared on social media were gone as well. Only a few photos of her in a skin-tight yoga suit remained. He went into her bedroom and opened the bottom drawer of the dresser. The blond wig she sometimes wore when they had sex was missing; she hadn’t worn it in a long time.
He never said anything about her weight because he thought she was hot the way she was, but lately she seemed to have shrunk. She mentioned something about twenty pounds in one of the brief cell exchanges they shared when he was at work. But these conversations were little more than a checklist of chores he needed to do. He sometimes thought Nora was out of his league, but she seemed satisfied as long as he paid the bills.
Despite his lackluster marriage, Reggie was a popular figure on the job. He sold a little crank on the side that he got from Moses the dealer down in the city. The delivery drivers ate it like candy, and this hustle made him enough extra money to buy Nora the little things women like to have, like fancy perfume and designer underwear. Sometimes he felt paranoid but, so far, there were no operatives, and he shook it off as just part of doing business. Besides, a little tweak was nice once in a while when things turned shitty.
But lately everything gelled. The thought that Nora might be cheating on him drove him crazy, like drive his fist through the door crazy. And there was something else, something weird. He decided to contact an old friend he had made at the psych center years ago. Reggie called him and made an appointment.
* * *
The therapist’s name was Taylor Hudson, and he was a crisis intervention counselor at the community Mental Health Clinic. When Reggie walked into Taylor’s cube — a tiny compartment located in the old Art Theater — pictures of Freud, Hendrix, and Malcolm X hung on the wall.
Taylor was an unassuming man with a scruffy beard and a wide smile. He wore a red and blue tie dye and had a pony tail that hung to his belt. When he saw Reg, his eyes lit up, and he reached out his hand. “Reggie, long time no speak. How the heck are you?” They shook hands. Taylor gestured to a chair. “Sit down.”
They chatted for a while, and Reggie said, “Doc” — Reggie always called him Doc — “I need to talk to you about something.”
“Sure, Reg.” The smile drained from Taylor’s face. “Before we begin, I want you to know that I know what you’re up to. Look at you, Reg. Your hands are trembling, and you’ve been picking at yourself. I’m a psychologist not a doctor.”
Taylor reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a card. “I’m going to refer you to this guy. I know him personally. His name is Dr. Lester Kroenig, and he’s the kind of doctor that actually gives a damn about people.”
Reggie shifted in the chair. “Will you at least talk to me about it?”
Taylor glanced through the opened blinds and into the street. “Okay, Reggie, here’s the deal. I’ll hear you out, but you’re going to promise me that you’ll follow through with the appointment I set up with Dr. Kroenig. Do we have a plan?”
Reggie raised his chin and scratched the stubble on his neck. “Yeah, we’re good, Doc.”
Taylor pulled a pencil from a Tiki mug sitting on his desk and drummed the eraser softly on the desktop. “Okay, Reg, shoot. What’s the problem?”
“Well, Doc, there’s an arm growing out of the center of my chest.”
A snarky expression formed on Taylor’s face, and he giggled. “Same old Reggie.” Taylor squinted. “I can’t see it, Reg,” he said sarcastically.
Reggie hammered his hand on the desktop, and the Tiki mug toppled. “Damn it Taylor, this is serious. There’s an arm sticking out of my chest!”
Taylor swallowed hard and rolled back in his chair. “Take it easy, Reg. We’ll help you with it.”
“I’ve never lied to you, Doc. I came to you because I don’t know what else to do?”
“Do you feel the arm is a threat to anyone?” Taylor asked.
Reggie laughed. “A threat, that’s funny. It’s more like a big friendly dog that jumps in your lap and lands like an anvil. But you need to understand something, Doc. Even though I know the arm is a just a notion, I feel fearless when it’s there. I’m not a big man, but I know that no matter what happens to me, the arm will protect me. We wouldn’t harm a fly, except in self-defense.”
“Have you ever seen the arm?” Taylor asked.
“Well, not exactly, only in my head. It’s like some kind of pressure. It feels smooth and shiny, and the bicep is huge like a bowling ball. The fist is thick and calloused with knuckles as big as walnuts, and it can grip objects like a vice.”
“Okay, Reg, I know you see the arm, but no one else does. If they did, they’d run like hell.”
Reggie sighed. “That’s what sucks, Doc. Let me try and explain. If I were to tell you that there’s a Cyclops sitting out in the lobby, you’d know what I’m talking about. Most people have a mental picture of what a Cyclops looks like. But no one has ever seen a Cyclops. The arm’s a vision, not something that is actually sticking out of my chest.”
“I understand. Does the arm ever speak or act on its own?”
“No, never,” Reggie said. “It’s just always there like a silent reminder... like God.”
“Look, Reggie, I want to help you with this. Promise me you’re not a threat to yourself or anyone else.”
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” Reggie said.
“Okay, I’m going to call, Dr. Kroenig. Wait here until I return.”
“No problem, Doc.”
When Taylor returned to his office, Reggie was gone.
* * *
It was seven pm when Reggie pulled into the driveway. A dim light burned in the window, but he knew Nora was out. She kept her Lexus in one stall of the garage, and they used the other one for storage. He parked his early Tacoma in the driveway and pressed the button on the remote. When the door opened, her car was missing.
He went inside, turned off the light in the living room, and collapsed in the La-Z-Boy. He clicked on the television and stared mindlessly at the local news channel. His mind wandered back to the last company Christmas party at the VFW. A local band called the Sky Rockets had cranked out “Honky Tonk Woman”, and Nora had danced with his boss, Mel. They had gyrated like a couple of teenagers in some sort of mating ritual. He remembered he had felt too drunk to get off the bar stool so he ordered another Scotch and soda.
The garage door rumbled. He glanced at his watch. It was almost two a.m. The door in the kitchen opened, and Nora entered the foyer. She turned on the light and recoiled. “Oh, Reggie, you scared me! What are you doing up? I thought you’d be in bed.”
“Where have you been, Nora?”
“I told you, tonight was the photography club. You knew that.” Her hair looked damp, and she smelled like sandalwood.
He glanced at her hand. “Where’s your wedding ring?”
Nora put on her my oh-my-goodness face and said, “I never wear it when I’m shooting pictures; it just gets in the way. So what’s the big deal?”
“No big deal, Nora. I’ve grown to accept the situation.”
“What situation, Reggie?” Her voice was firm.
“Just, the way things are between us. You have your life, and I have mine. How’s Mel?”
Nora dropped her bag, and it thumped on the floor. She stepped closer, and her eyes burned. “That’s none of your business. Look Reggie, we have an agreement. Remember? You refuse to give me a divorce, and I’m not walking out of this mess on your terms. Besides, I can wait it out. You’ll be dead soon anyway! There’s nothing left in this marriage but the assets. Now if you want to change your life, we can negotiate. If not, stay away from me. You got it?!” She ran upstairs and slammed the door.
* * *
The morning broke cold and grey, and rain drizzled on the windshield. The parkway raged in a sea of cars, and the horn seemed to have a mind of its own. Reggie felt disoriented, but the arm pointed the directions needed to make it to Lumber King. They were an hour late when he arrived. When they entered the warehouse, the phone rang. It was Mel. “I need to talk with you this afternoon, Suggins. Meet me in my office around three. It won’t take long.” Mel slammed the phone with a clap.
Mel Stover was an athletic man who’d grown enormous through the use of steroids. His shoulders were a yard wide, and his shirt sleeves strained against the bulge of his biceps. He had a habit of flexing his pecs when he spoke. Stover had never struggled much. His father owned the three largest lumber yards in Nashville, and his only son ran them all.
When Reggie walked in his office, Mel stood gazing in a plate glass mirror mounted on the wall. He said nothing and continued to pose in the glass. An awkward silence hung in the air. Mel sat down and put his feet up on the desk. “Take a seat, Reggie. We have a few things we need to discuss.” The little man dropped into the chair. “Do you remember that pallet you unloaded the other day from St. Louis?” Mel asked. “It was a cube of liquid Helium destined for the Holston Army Plant. What the hell were you thinking? We’re stuck with it now. That’s an OSHA violation, and it will take forever to straighten this out.”
Reggie lowered his head and rubbed his brow. “I thought it was Rolled Asphalt Shingle. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry ain’t gonna cut it, Suggins. You screw up all the time. You call in every couple of days, and we can’t count on you to show up for work. There are rumors going around about what you’ve been doing on my property. The state troopers were parked out front all last week. I’m sorry, Reggie. I’m going to have to let you go.”
The arm throbbed. “But I’ve been with the company seventeen years, Mel. Who plowed the snow around here on their own time? Who opened the yard every morning and dealt with customers no one else could handle? I took care of things while you were going through your divorce. I made sure nobody stole as much as a nail. I did all that and a lot more, Mel, and now you’re going to flush me down the toilet like a used rubber. You owe me, Mel.”
The big man jumped up, and his shirt rippled. “I owe you what, Suggins?”
Reggie scowled. “You’ve been banging my old lady, ain’t cha, Mel? Your number’s in that secret file she hides in her cell phone? Is that why you’re giving me the boot?”
A thin smile formed on Mel’s face. “Look, Reggie, you need to put the bottle down. I’ve got half a dozen women I can’t keep satisfied now, and all of them are younger than Nora. It’s not that I don’t like older women. They’re easier to please, but...”
“But what, Mel?”
“Well, when they reach a certain age, they start to sag a little, you know?” He thrust his hips back and forth and winked. “Besides, if you would have kept the home fires burning, maybe you wouldn’t be in the jam you’re in now. You’re fired, Reggie. Are you going to leave peacefully, or do I have to throw you out of here myself?”
The arm hammered in Reggie’s chest, and his face erupted in a scarlet hue. He took a deep breath, and a mask of confidence settled in his features. He stood up and placed his hands in the pockets of his bib overalls. “You know, Mel, I always admired you. I often thought that if I looked like you, I might get some respect. How the hell did you ever get so big?”
Mel turned and faced the mirror. He did a lat spread and smiled a toothy Hollywood smile. “Muscle City, I go there every day at seven, and I work out until noon. If you want to amount to anything in this world, you’ve got to get over your ego and aim for the gold.”
“Maybe I should try that.” Reggie said.
Mel turned and his smile flattened. “Look, Reg, you helped me out a little when I had some hard times, and I appreciate it. But it’s not my decision to get rid of you. It came from upstairs. Leave Nora out of this. I know you got issues, Reg, but I won’t allow you to dis the Stover name and the credibility of Lumber King. Take your whopping like a man. A guy with your skills can always find another job. And by the way, if I ever see you in Muscle City, they’ll have to carry you out of there on a stretcher. That place is for professionals, not girly men like you. Now get off my property!”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by John W. Steele