On what would become the second worst day of his forty-eight years, he drove in to the shop an hour late, hung over and irritated. He’d planned to get an early start, but family business intervened again—this time in the form of a Sunday dinner party for his future in-laws. It was his first meeting with David’s parents. Though impressed by their height, he found them slow-witted and numbingly dull. To get through the evening, he’d leaned a little too heavily on the wine.
As he pulled into the parking lot he was pleased to see all the company pickups gone. Apparently his little lecture on hustle delivered to the boys on Friday had gotten through. His daughter’s new 1965 Impala was parked at an angle across two spaces, something he’d asked her not to do. He’d have to tell her again, more firmly.
His receptionist was on the phone as he entered. She covered the mouthpiece and caught his eye, looking a little shell-shocked. “It’s Mr. Ganns. Can you talk to him? He’s blowing up at me.”
He swept by her, smiling. “Tell him he can pick up his check anytime after eleven. And Wanda—no calls or visitors till he gets here.” He entered his office and closed the door, just missing his most loyal employee’s one-fingered salute.
An hour later, with the blueprints for the Wichita Civic Auditorium spread on his desk, he was calculating materiel for the forced air duct. His daughter entered without knocking, an Innes catalogue in hand. She and David had circled their top three choices for the dishwasher: the PlateMaster 550 ($228), the Anchor Quest Maxi ($349), and the Percival Custom 1500 ($499). Now his input was needed.
“That PlateMaster looks like good value.”
“We were leaning that way. Consumer Reports gives it a ‘Best Buy’.”
“They’re the experts, aren’t they?”
“You’re a sweetheart, dad.” He felt a peck in his burr cut. Hmm—new perfume? Very nice.
After she left, he tried to remember how he’d become responsible for buying the dishwasher. When you give your kid and her fiancé a house, does it mean you owe them furnishings? His mistake, he realized, had been in agreeing to buy the refrigerator. From that followed the range, logically enough, then the dishwasher—and whatever the heck came next. Would he have the honor of buying their new bed? Absolutely not. Let David or his parents pick up the tab for that. Lawyers make money, don’t they?
He returned to work and found his calculator turned off. Now how did that happen? His running sum was gone, so he began again. This wedding hullabaloo was getting to be a bit much. How did Natalie have time to keep the books while devoting twelve hours a day to wedding plans and the new house? She didn’t.
It was ten-fifteen and he’d accomplished next to nothing. Feeling antsy, he realized he needed something to steady him, so he could concentrate. He went out to reception with his mug, drew a cup of coffee and took it back into his office, closing the door. From a desk drawer he lifted a pint of vodka, uncapped it and spiked the steaming coffee. Soon the kicker began infusing him. As he relaxed, the wisdom of his decision was increasingly confirmed. The annoying headache was departing and he felt a new zest for his work. His fingers began to dance on the calculator keypad.
He was pricing air vents when the mail truck drifted by on the street, slowing. The sight galvanized him with anticipation. His heart speeded up and his armpits began to trickle. When Wanda entered with the letters, he pretended to be absorbed in a blueprint. She laid the envelopes on the corner of his desk. Once the door closed, he snatched up the letters and went through them fast, reading return addresses. Bill. Bill. Bill. Charity solicitation. Bill. He came to the last envelope and saw that it too was not the one he was looking for. His heart grabbed. Willets had been lying. The bastard hadn’t mailed the check.
A second cup of Russian coffee was needed. Soon he was back at work, trying to put everything but the auditorium bid out of mind and succeeding until a flash of gold on the street drew his attention—Walt Ganns’ Cadillac! He stuffed the vodka bottle under his belt and, jacket in hand, hurried out the rear door of his office and into the shop. Through dirty windows he saw Ganns striding across the parking lot. He gave his creditor time to enter reception then exited onto the loading dock. He scrambled down metal stairs and ran to his car.
Miles from the shop, driving north on Broadway, he checked his rearview again. Seeing nothing gold behind him, he slowed to the speed limit. It was an hour till lunch. He knew if he continued up the 81 he could eat on the outskirts of Salina at one of his favorite steak houses. Afterward he could drop by Western Mills, talk to Willets face to face, maybe shake loose the check. If Willets wasn’t there, though, he’d waste a lot of time.
It occurred to him he was near the farm where he and Jeanette lived when they first moved to Wichita from Belle Plaine. Wanting to see the place again, he drove over to Meridian. Back in those days he was studying civil engineering at Wichita University. He did chores in return for rent on a mobile home in the shade of a peach orchard. Jeanette kept a garden. From his GI Bill checks they saved for a down payment on a house. Those were some of their happiest years, at least in his memory.
He’d been driving through a new housing development for some time when he saw a branch bank and some old frame houses he knew to be part of Valley Center. That meant he’d gone past the farm. Obviously it had been swallowed up by the mammoth development. At a market he remembered, he bought a can of orange drink. The store had changed little over the years. Did he recognize the old woman behind the counter? He wasn’t sure. In his car he took a long sip of orange drink, then added vodka to the can, emptying the bottle. He recapped the bottle and pushed it into the glove box where it clinked against another bottle.
He drove south on Meridian sipping the screwdriver and trying to guess where the farm might have been. Ranch-style houses with the same browning autumn lawns provided zero landmarks. In the end he parked on an access road at the edge of the development and nursed his drink. Beside him was a high chain-link fence. It ran unbroken for as far as he could see in both directions. The land beyond the fence had been graded into a treeless levee covered with grass. Beyond the levee, he supposed, the Arkansas River still braided its way through brush-covered sandbars. Decades ago he’d fished there. He and Jeanette had gone swimming in the main channel, with a sandbar for a beach. They’d picnicked. After heavy rains the brown water rose and widened to a swift unbroken flood with here and there a swaying sapling.
In those days big cottonwoods shaded both riverbanks in the warm months. During fall their waxy yellow leaves shimmered in the sun. In spring the towering trees released their silky fluff on the prairie wind. He missed those old trees. He thought of the kids who would never know them—but instead know the fence. Opening the car door he dropped the juice can onto the street. It rolled underneath the car and clanked against the curb.
His early arrival at the Wildcatter’s Club got him a booth overlooking the river. Sipping a vodka Collins he waited for his prime rib and baked potato, avoiding the eyes of several people he didn’t want to talk to. Fred Mabry entered in a trench coat, using long fingers to untangle his windblown hair.
“Freddy! Hey Freddy! Let me buy you lunch.” Mabry stopped beside his table and bestowed his usual charming smile. “Can’t today. I’m lunching with Arnold. What’s up?”
“Sit down. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“Busy, I bet. You must be seeing a ton of bids for the new auditorium.” Tilting back his head, he finished his drink.
“It’s confidential, Ed. You know that.”
“Sure sure, I know. Whatcha up to?”
“Finding sponsors for the river festival. Don’t think we had you with us last year.”
“Well, things are a little tight.”
“It’s only five hundred to sponsor a boat. You can go shares for less.”
“What will get me in?”
“Okay. Put me down for that.”
From inside his coat Mabry pulled a small notebook. He flipped it open and wrote. “Every little bit helps.” He winked and walked away.
When the waitress brought his lunch, he wondered why he’d ordered so much. The smell of the roasted meat made him nauseous. He nibbled at the potato, poked the beef, and finished another drink. Pondering the girl’s tip, he factored in her cheerful assistance when he’d knocked over his ice water—and added two bucks.
Back in his office with the door closed and instructions to Wanda to hold calls, he returned to the auditorium blueprints. The alcohol he’d consumed had him feeling very calm but also a little sleepy, so he drew fresh coffee to sharpen his focus. By itself the coffee tasted flat. He cracked the tax stamp on the pint he’d picked up after lunch and tilted it over his mug, adding flavor. Soon he was hard at work.
An angry male voice erupted in reception. Before he could get out of his chair the door flew open and in stormed Walt Ganns. “You ran out on me, you sonofabitch!”
He remained seated, glad for the desk between himself and Ganns. “I had to deposit a check, Walt, before I could pay you. Want your money or not?”
Ganns waited with his palms flat on the ink blotter, face gloomy. Writing fast, he tore the check from the ledger and handed it over. Ganns scrutinized. “You postdated it! This is the twenty-first, not the twenty-fourth!”
“The bank put a three-day hold on my deposit. I can’t help that.”
Ganns stuffed the check in his shirt pocket and glowered. “If this bounces I’m going straight to the DA’s office. That’s a promise.” On his way out, he slammed the door so hard a paper was pulled off the desk.
Drawing more coffee, he ignored Wanda’s amusement. In his office he gave the coffee a double shot to placate his jangled nerves. He was ready to work on the bid again, but couldn’t find the legal pad containing his figures. He was still looking when his daughter entered with a magazine article revealing that the PlateMaster was not childproofed. Since she and David planned to have kids, might it not be better, she wondered, to invest in an Anchor Quest or a Percival, both of which had an automatic door lock to prevent children getting inside while the machine was on.
He was about to declare that no grandchild of his could possibly be stupid enough to crawl in a dishwasher, running or not, when he remembered David’s parents. Maybe childproofing wasn’t such a bad idea. “Give me those prices again.”
“Anchor Quest, three-forty-nine. Percival, four-ninety-nine.”
“If it’s up to me, anchors away with the Anchor Quest.”
“You and David agree, so I guess I’m outnumbered.”
“Isn’t democracy great?”
After she left, he felt frazzled, his concentration shot. What with all the distractions, he had not been able to maintain the necessary fine balance between coffee and alcohol. A fog of fatigue clouded his mind. His body weight felt doubled. He snapped off his desk lamp, staggered to the couch and lay down on his stomach, closing his eyes.
When he woke it was dark out and a streetlight was shining in the window. He rose from the couch, went to his desk and turned on the lamp. He held his wristwatch under the light. Six forty-three. He locked up and drove home as leaves blew through the car beams on a stiff wind. He was thinking about the check he’d written Ganns. How was he going to cover it? He had three days and no plans at all, unless, miracle of miracles, Willets came through. A horn blared and lights flashed in front of him. He hit the brakes and skidded, just missing the taillights of the other car. He realized he’d run a stop sign. He slowed down and concentrated on getting home alive.
In his den he sat with a drink, feeling low—very low. He watched wind toss the backyard oaks under the yard lights. A squirrel descended a trunk and hopped across the lawn with an acorn in its mouth. But it was nighttime! Was he seeing things? No, the squirrel did indeed have an acorn in its mouth. The lights must have fooled it. Next to the pool shed, the squirrel tore a hole in the grass and began to dig. Observing the animal’s instinctive deed dragged his mood so low that even the blowing trees lost their appeal.
Three weeks earlier, when he’d spiraled down into a similar despondency, but more intense, he’d loaded his handgun and put the barrel in his mouth, just to see what it felt like. The taste of the steel came back to him. He’d never intended to pull the trigger. He wasn’t the kind to take his own life. But that wasn’t really the issue, was it? Why he’d done it was the issue. He was reflecting on that when the phone rang. It was his wife, asking whether he’d found the casserole in the refrigerator.
“No, but I’m managing.”
“I’m at Innes with Natalie, looking at dishwashers. There’s been a crisis, I’m afraid.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
His wife laughed, reminding him how much he liked her laugh. She explained that the dishwasher he’d most recently agreed to buy had been discontinued. Innes did have a Percival in stock, but it was the VIP model with eight wash and rinse cycles and special noise suppression features. “Natalie seems to have her heart set on it,” she added.
“Oh for god’s sake. Who does she think I am, Santa Claus?”
“Say no if that’s how you feel. You know how I feel.”
“We’ve created a greedy princess. I can’t see how it helps her or us.”
“Where is she now?”
“Upstairs talking to the salesman.”
He considered the likely repercussions should he nix the Percival. Days of icy politeness from his daughter would follow. Veiled comments would drop concerning the paternal parent’s strange desire to sabotage the marriage. Peace would be with him neither at home nor at work until he relented and sprang for the Rolls Royce of dishwashers.
“Go ahead and get it,” he said, “but tell her we’re not buying one damn dish.”
He waited for his wife to respond. She didn’t.
“Can you put it on your Innes charge card?”
“If you want me to.” She sounded disappointed.
“Might as well then.”
After the call he went in the kitchen to fix a drink and smelled something burning. His submarine! The timer had expired. He opened the oven and found the foil-wrapped sandwich smoking like a defective pipe bomb. He tossed it in the sink, fixed a screwdriver and carried that into the den.
The squirrel was gone and the wind was falling off. Soon it would be getting cold out there. He sipped his drink and remembered something he hadn’t thought about in years. When he was seven, or maybe eight, the neighbors paid him three dollars for feeding their pets while they were at a horse show in Denver. It was the first money he’d ever earned. He kept the bills in his desk for months, just for the power of having them. Eventually of course he spent them, though he couldn’t remember on what. He did remember the bills. They were new and crisp. They smelled of ink. They were proof of something he understood to be important yet had never worked out carefully—neither then nor later. It had been easier to assume that with his intelligence and capacity for work he’d always have enough of these sweet-smelling pieces of paper.
William Hart is a poet and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in several hundred literary journals, newspapers, commercial magazines and anthologies, including America, Commonweal, The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo), Florida Review, The Honolulu Advertiser, Pearl, Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Stand. My novels, Never Fade Away(Daniel & Daniel, 2002) and Operation Supergoose (Timberline, 2007), both received excellent reviews; and his most recent poetry book, “Home to Ballygunge: Kolkata Tanka,” is just out from Modern English Tanka Press. He and his wife produce documentary feature films for American public television (PBS).