COMPANY MAN by Jeff Karr

COMPANY MAN by Jeff Karr

Every time headlights made the hedge sparse, I put my face in dirt. I’d painted my face to hide my pallor but knew the beanie stuck with dead leaves would blend in more. Drivers who passed by the hedge would have to look for a long time to make out anything unusual in its withered branches. I’d made the same kind of beanie for Bill when he was starting catechism and a few of us dads had taken the kids to Camp Hawk for flashlight tag. He’d spent the whole night running with his head down, hoping to disappear. I saw every step he took but let him get to the tower. It made me laugh. I was laughing now. 

Quiet, dumbfuck. 

The car passed. It was getting late—the headlights fewer. I raised my head and got a look at Bill’s window. The blinds had gone from yellow to orange. He hadn’t turned on the lava lamp I’d given him at our last visitation. If it were on, I would have seen a yellowish-green oscillation telling me he was okay, and we were okay, and no shame in loving someone so much. 

Foyer light. Their foyer was big and drafty and made me fear death. I put my face in dirt. When I raised my head, the drapes were drawn and there was Devin, silhouetted at the foot of the stairs. He stood there, hand on railing, foot on stair. I knew he was listening for Bill, to see if he was awake. Devin was a motherfucker. He was selling gym memberships at her gym when they met. I don’t know that they fucked right away, and I doubt it matters. The big thing is she’d believed in him. She’d encouraged him till he quit the gym and got a job at the Jeep place, and look at him now—big Subaru salesman. Fucking Devin. She’d seen something in him she refused to see in me.

He was moving. The lights went out. You could hear the trees and the neighbor’s wind chimes. I watched the burnt orange of Bill’s window until just past midnight. I wanted to tell him to go to bed, or if he, like his old man, was afraid to try, maybe introduce him to coffee. I’d come to coffee late. 

*

My boss Preston was smart not to take his smoke breaks out front on the street but out back by the river. He drifted to the riverwalk’s edge and, staring at his screen, lit a cigarette. Preston was in charge of the temps who worked the deal pipeline. He was soulful maybe, had published a poem about MotoGP. He never asked us to work late, and he spoke to us like he knew we were getting fucked, a fact that bothered some, but one I appreciated.

How’s my girl doing?

Preston turned, looked deflated. Your girl?

I pointed at her.

That’s a swan, he said. I’m guessing you want to talk about the holiday party? He set off and I followed down the riverwalk. Management had neglected to invite the temps, myself included, to the holiday party. I’d already ginned up a fuss among my co-workers, and I knew Preston wrote poems—why not put his politics on the line? 

You’ll tell Martine we’re pissed?

You really want to go? These things suck ass.

We work 60 hours a week with you guys, I said. We can’t do a little dancing?

His recourse was to grip the railing and stare at the water. I did the same. Now we were two guys, gripping the railing and staring at the water, a film of gasoline on its surface.

I looked at the cylindrical wooden thing, where my girl was regal with her beak in the tuft of her feathers. I told him about last week, about the jays and their dive bombs, how she had stayed on her nest, bending her neck around all weird and honking, how the male had chased them north toward all that construction, how he had come back and perched and they had spread their wings out wide and gyrated. 

I’ll talk to management, he said. If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do. 

Who are you going to talk to?

He turned and I followed him through the revolving door and into the hulking granitic gut of our building, sunlight cascading through godly windows, chattering employees single-filing along counters where they filled their trays with tasteless food from around the world. We stood in line for the elevator. 

You look exhausted, he said. Everything okay with you?

You think you’ll talk to Martine? 

Are you and her close? 

I did not know Martine, but I knew she strode around like she hated stilettos while fully recognizing the authority they conferred. I knew she had a fidelity to khaki skirts that made her ass pop, that permanently imprinted on her thigh was the outline of a snus canister, a habit I figured was normal among Norse women. I knew in Norway she’d started a company that was a replica of the one I temped for. When it came time for our company to expand overseas, there was her modest operation, waiting to be bought out. She’d made a quick million. She was a woman so it was radical.

We stepped into the elevator with a group of five. None of us looked at one another. I said no, I’d never met Martine, but Preston didn’t respond, and I wasn’t sure if I’d said it out loud. 

*

They ate a late dinner and then I saw his silhouette scamper through the foyer and up the stairs. He liked to be alone. He took after her. I couldn’t blame him—it was only natural. Burnt orange light in his bedroom blinds, and then I saw the lava lamp’s aquamarinish-yellow, brightening, fading, the light of his child mind. The night was cold, but warm blood flowed toward my fingertips and toes.

Porch light. I put my face in the dirt and held my breath. The sliding glass door sounded like my girl in distress. I pictured the glow of her feathers, suspended over the river in the dark of night. I heard the unmistakable clink of plastic on wood. I knew she was sneaking one. Someone had smelled it on her before a deposition once. Then I got her pregnant and Bill was born. She chewed the gum during the day. Pass around a flask at your son’s flashlight tag outing and wham—your life is a shambles and your loved ones are distant and stern. But smoke that filth? She was a hypocrite. She fucking hated me, and I hated her. Before Bill was born, we would go all night, and she would laugh, sweating and breathing all over me. I missed her so much. 

I twisted my neck to where I could see her. She was at the edge of the deck, staring at the koi pond they’d been able to afford. Sometimes it bothered me, but now, not so much. Even when Devin came out and they spoke in hushed voices, the lilt of life plans forming in improvisation, I was not angry. I knew Devin loved my son. I had to applaud his feel for character. Devin’s whole thing is he was fucking intolerable on the internet, a guy who mistook for a virtue his ability to see both sides. They went inside. As the night got colder, more blustery, I went deep into a scenario where Devin, for example, allowed into the home a homicidal man, where his knack for fence-sitting didn’t do him any good, and Bill had to call me from the closet, and I had to violate court order to save their asses. Afterward, over my ex lying supine in her hospital bed—doctors said she’d be fine—Devin would shake my hand. He and my ex would look at me, each other, smiling. 

Bill’s light went out after midnight. I’d already left. 

*

The club where they held the holiday party was labyrinthine with light-up dance floors, dark hallways and catwalks running parallel and perpendicular, wet skin and elastic dresses that glittered and hugged curves in the strobing light. I asked for a mocktail, and the bartender just blinked at me. I asked for a water with a lime in it. He brought it over, and I sent him back for another lime. I came across a descending stairway out of which wafted the smell of fried food. I descended and found my fellow temps cluttered around pool tables. They cheered when they saw me. Here was Judith—Hey, hon!—holding a queso-dipped chip with her pinky extended, smiling and chewing. Here, aiming a cue stick, was EJ, who always listened to hall of fame speeches while he worked. Here was Echaka who took acting classes and was literally going to act in Hollywood movies. Here was Spence who used terms like Blue Eyed Soul and was hopelessly in love with Jen from the mailroom. Here was Jen from the mailroom. Here were all the others. My brethren of scant health coverage. Maybe an hour had passed when Preston came down. I was surprised when he patted my shoulder. He’d been avoiding me, and even though he’d lived up to our expectations, I imagined it was hard not to feel violated when someone else puts your honor on the line. 

Listen, I read your poem, I said. The one about motorcycle racing. 

He flushed red. You found me, huh?

Fucking phenomenal poetry, man, and I would tell you if I didn’t like it. 

Martine is looking for you. 

What’s going on with Martine? 

She’s in the ice palace. 

Is she angry?

She just told me to find you. 

Good luck, hon, Judith said. 

I reemerged onto a festering dance floor, women on trapeze overhead, bullhorns and smoke, the Boschian hellscape of tech people at play. The runged stairway to the catwalk was slow-going. Women were pressed up against the railing, smiling and shouting inanities at the imbeciles below. I brushed against butt the whole way across. When I squeezed out on the other side, I paused for the blood to recirculate. The ice palace was merely a blue-lit room that smelled like the inside of a mask. On a bench on the opposite wall, Martine repeatedly patted the spot beside her. 

I need to say thank you, she said. 

I introduced myself, nervous.

I need to tell you thank you for making sure you guys got an invite. We couldn’t do what we do without you.

They’re great people, I said. I know they appreciate it.

She dug in her purse and produced a vial and small spoon. She put the spoon in the vial and then to her nose. She extended spoon and vial. I told her thank you but no thank you. I told her I was sober and she seemed confused. I wanted to tell her it had been the principle of it all, and I hadn’t actually cared about partying with any of these people.

Well you’ve been working hard. Sixty hours a week? And you saved us on those Bieber toothbrushes. If they had gone through with that MSRP…

I have an eye for these things.

Drumming her fingers, she looked at a group across the room. You’re really funny, she said, turning and leaning toward me. But what are you hoping to achieve here?

Full benefits. Full-time employment.

No, I mean your dreams, she said, looking back toward the group. 

It would be awesome to quit the temp agency. 

She looked at me. Dreams and aspirations. When you see your future, what do you see? 

Dreams. I couldn’t tell her that since my 20s had ended in calamity, I knew better than to dream where employment was concerned. Mind blank, I just sat there. Then I looked at her. I want to buy a house, is the admission I settled on, which had the benefit of being true. I want to buy a house with two bedrooms so my little boy can sleep over.

She frowned like I was a baby. I love that, she said. Have you met Mr. Androsky?

I hesitated and knew she’d noticed. I’d long suspected management, or some company stooge, of monitoring our online chatter, which only intensified the catharsis I felt when, every day, after satisfying my quota, I took to our chat platform to savage the higher-ups, a way of building camaraderie with the other temps.

You’re asking if I’ve met the CEO? 

You’ve come to his attention. 

I stared at the hordes on the catwalk. Now they had me where they wanted me. Couldn’t I have seen it coming? Having raised a stink about the holiday party after chatting my co-workers that Androsky was a rich pervert with a twisted penis? But I’d sided up to him at the urinals one day, and his penis was legitimately twisted.

I’m sorry. 

What do you mean sorry? Did you know he has a private box at the United Center? 

For the Bulls games? 

People were shouting her name. He gave me tickets, she said. He wants one to go to you. 

Bulls tickets?

For all your hard work.

She stood and smoothed her skirt, smiling with no pretense, her eyes wide like she was genuinely happy, like she was inviting me to participate in the happiness. I stood and gave her a hug, felt like I could be a part of something. The group came over. Her boyfriend had a neck tattoo, looked like the kind of white guy you see wearing FUBU in minor Midwestern cities. I didn’t dwell on it. They went down to the dance floor. I went to the catwalk. I shouted and laughed, stomping to the music. I danced and laughed and pointed at my friends below. 

*

At the lake near their house in the northern suburbs, my ex was livid. Though I’d been thrilled to tell them my news, I’d pulled up to their place, had seen the sign—Back the Blue and Black Lives Too—and flipped, told her our son did not back the fucking blue. She’d reminded me Devin’s dad was a cop, but I’d ended up calling Devin an Uncle Tom anyway. She’d shrieked that under no circumstance was it okay for me, a white man, to call Devin an Uncle Tom. I’d said I hadn’t known the term was a slur—the truth—and that I was sorry and certainly had some introspection to do, had apologized till the sound of my apology made me feel empty. 

Now, sun shining, our throats shot from screaming, we walked the lake path in that state of narcotic listlessness that follows a scrap. Bill kept extending the lightsaber I’d bought him, lunging and jumping back. 

We sat on a bench in the sunlight, waves ablaze as they lapped at the shore. We stared out at the point, a small peninsula whirling with tallgrass, the perfect place for a nest. My ex squinted at the water. The wind blew her hair across her face, and she put a strand back behind her ear. I knew I no longer loved her. 

Did I tell you guys I get to go to the Bulls game for work?

I want to go, Bill said.

I’ll be sitting in the CEO’s box. He knows I’ve been putting in extra hours. 

My ex—a powerful lawyer—seemed genuinely happy: Are you serious? That’s so great. That is such great news.

I put my hand on Bill’s head, wincing at how fragile it felt. I’m going to tell him I’m looking to go full time, I said. I think he’ll respect that. 

I don’t know why he wouldn’t, she said.

See that peninsula out there, Bill? 

What’s a peninsula? 

That’s an ideal habitat for swans. 

Swans have lifelong mates, he said. 

I don’t have the energy to walk all that way, she said. 

Stay here and kick back, I said, feeling a pang of anger when I saw the worry flash in her eyes, but the worry faded, and she looked at the lake.

I’ll wait right here, she said.

Bill and I made for the peninsula, his light-saber in and out. 

Has your mother been saying anything about me?

Devin said I shouldn’t keep that lava lamp by my bed. 

Devin doesn’t have a clue. 

You don’t like Devin? 

He’s a good man, I said. He loves you very much.

I love him too.

But a lot of good people are very, very stupid, and that’s okay. 

We walked hand-in-hand, our arms swinging a little. I imagined what she saw when she saw us: me a solid two and a half feet taller, laughing as Bill extended his lightsaber and swung it, letting him drift a little ways away before pulling him close and putting my arm around him. I could feel her seeing in the sight of us a future wherein she could believe in me, where maybe I was a little immature, fine, but also loving and attentive, where I sang to him and made him grilled-cheese sandwiches, where I was financially okay and had a house and a little room with a lava lamp and a shelf full of Great Illustrated Classics, a baby blue nightstand where he could put the radio that lulled him to sleep.

We’d reached the peninsula, and no swans to be found. Bill said something about flying south. I wanted to tell him about my girl, but a horn resounded, and on Lakeshore, bicyclists in spandex yelled profanities. On the far side of the street, outside of the coffee shop, people were bundled up and kicking back in the sunlight. I looked back toward the bench. She was watching, one hand on her hip, the other cupping her brow. I pulled Bill toward the street. 

You’ve been staying up too late.

How do you know?

We’re going to get a cup of Josephus. It’ll give you strength, so you won’t be miserable and bored at school. 

Mom’s calling. 

I looked back at her waving her arms and striding big. We crossed the street. I looked back at her waving her arms and jogging. She pointed and waved her arms and shouted. People stopped in the street and stared. They watched me walk hand-in-hand with my son like I was doing something suspect. We went into the coffee shop, and the futility of life impressed itself upon me. In seeing her run, I knew I’d never live it down. I’d forever be the man who’d boozed at his son’s flashlight tag outing. It’s true these things unfold in a sequence of elongated seconds: first the headlights veering into your side of the double-yellow, then a swerve and a turn of the head, a fleeting awareness of the weight behind you. It’s impossible, but seared deep inside is the sight of his head snapping forward and his glasses flying off and the burst of the airbag smashing them back into his face. The lord’s light is a fathomless null. Sometimes you’re afforded a glimpse and it’s a tunnel on the other side of which you crawl on the accordioned car’s ceiling. I got him out and onto the frozen grass, sopping wet with the gasoline. I patted down his little boy body to check for broken bones. His nose was bleeding, and his left eye was bloodshot and bruised, some cuts on his forehead, a broken wrist. He was awake, but he was not crying. His clothes were soaked with gasoline. I took off his pants, his sweater and coat. It was freezing, so I gave him my pants, my sweater and coat. When help arrived, he was wearing my clothes, and I was in my underwear. Our faces were painted black. 

Some looks you don’t forget. 

*

She had him by the arm and was leading him out the door. I followed them out to the street, everyone staring. 

The kid can’t sleep, I said. You want him to be miserable at school? 

It’s a cup of Josephus, mom! 

He’s going to be miserable at school. You’re really doing this?

She turned, looked me up and down, and then they left.

*

A few weeks into the new year, the week of the Bulls game, Martine invited the temps to a meeting. I was not worried. Not at all. I felt calm and curious, just glad to have something to do. The post-holiday slump had dashed morale. Hopes of renewal were giving way to deflation. It was dark when we clocked in, dark when we clocked out. For lunch, most of us were back to eating massively caloric burritos, alone at our desks, trying to duck the panoptic eye of our office’s open floor plan. 

I followed Preston to the coffeemaker. He stood before the only window and watched a tourist boat etch a V in the green river water. 

What’s up with this meeting? 

There’s nothing to worry about.

That dude was Martine’s boyfriend?

The guy at the holiday party?

I thought he was going to bust out a fucking yo-yo. 

Preston laughed. Some things get lost in translation, he said. I’ve been meaning to ask, do you have any interest in going to the Bulls game Saturday? Androsky has a box. I’m not going to be able to make it.

Hands in pockets, he raised his eyebrows and smiled. 

What do you mean? I said. 

I was thinking you might want my ticket to the game, he said, a new hesitancy in his voice. His pupils dilated. He twiddled a rhythm against his thigh.

You didn’t happen to tell Martine you couldn’t make it, did you?

What? 

Martine already invited me. 

He nodded and turned to the window.

But she said it’s because I’ve been busting ass? All the 60 hour weeks?

That’s great, man. Good for you.

But it sounds like you’re just not able to go and that’s why she’s giving me a ticket?

What do you mean?

Come on, man. Don’t play dumb with me. 

Relax, all right? I need to run to the bathroom before this meeting.

I turned back to the window. The boat passed the cylindrical wooden thing my girl had fled and then disappeared beneath the defunct drawbridge. A bundled up family watched it pass. I needed to find Martine, but across the office, the other temps were heading toward the conference room. 

Hey, hon, Judith said. I told her hey, girl, and gave her a hug. Echaka and EJ mimicked the way I’d danced at the party, but I was too distracted to laugh, and not only by the possibility that Martine had lied about Androsky wanting to reward me, but also by the fact that she and Preston were late, and there was an indignity about being here before them: we temps were not allowed key cards. The conference rooms had glass walls. Anyone who passed by would know there could be no reason for our waiting outside of an empty room but for our second class employment status. As individuals, testimonies to our unique circumstances could be deployed to ward off pity, but taken as a mass, our backstories dissolved in the acid bath of generality. 

I walked back, by myself, toward Martine’s desk. Not there. I went into the bathroom and recognized Preston’s bunched corduroys and white Nikes in one of the stalls. 

You guys are late, I said.

Are you kidding me?

You never gave us key cards.

I’m busy, man.

It’s fucking undignified. 

I’m fucking busy. I’ll be out in a minute. 

Martine was propping open the glass door, its edge pressing khaki into her ass cheek, but I didn’t notice. The temps filed into the room, some smiling, others keeping their gaze downcast in a way I found embarrassing.

I need to ask you about something, I said. And actually I’m not late but—

Ask me after the meeting, Martine said, looking away.

I took a seat at the far head of the particleboard table. They had accented our office with bright green walls, had installed swings that hung from the ceiling, condescending attempts to distract us from our movement toward death; but despite the green and glass walls, the adult swings in the distance, the conference room was archetypal: you felt it turn your insides into a dirty taupe. Martine sat at the other head and plugged in her laptop. On her cheekbone, beneath a coat of rouge, there appeared to be a bruise. She was slouched, unusual for her, and as she typed, head lolling around, her eyes worried the screen, sapped her of the air of confidence that usually surrounded her like a forcefield. Her eyes were watery and reddish. She aimed the remote and sighed, sounding fearful almost. She crossed the room and turned on the flatscreen. On the other side of the glass, full-timers passed by and averted their eyes. There seemed among them a tacit agreement never to acknowledge our existence, as if doing so would call into question the nature of their own. 

Okay, she said, popping a snus pouch into her mouth. Anyone know why we’re here?

She clicked her mouse repeatedly and typed. No? she said. On the flatscreen there appeared a flowchart depicting deals bottlenecking in our part of the pipeline. I stared at the flowchart’s white-gray-red. She told us she’d decided this would be a good time for some radical candora term that sounded even more freakish when it wasn’t uttered with the dopey zeal of a corporate evangelist, headsetted, immortal, pacing a stage with fingers splayed, as if gripping an invisible basketball. She informed us we were not hitting our quotas. We were holding up deals for issues that should have been quick-fixes. 

The buyers are fudging their MSRP’s, Judith said. 

Martine pulled up a performance analysis. Judith had fallen short of her quota every day for the last two weeks. 

You know my daughter has been sick.

And we try to be flexible, Martine said. But this is not acceptable output.

She pulled up a timesheet that showed Echaka had been clocking out early. 

That’s so I can get to the theater, she said. I cleared that with you. 

I’m just sensing some of you don’t want to be here, Martine said, now displaying a pie chart showing how much time Spence and Jen spent chatting each other. 

What do I need to do to get you guys to work harder? 

EJ mumbled. 

EJ? 

Hire us full time?

Maybe you should spend less time listening to hall of fame speeches and more time creating your future. You all applied at a temp agency. Full-time employment is on the table but we want to see who wants it. Who’s going to maximize their potential? She went on in that manner, until the weightiness she’d brought into the room was pressing down on us. I thought she was about to set us free, but she cleared her throat, said that, having said all that, they were going to start offering perks, and one of us had been working harder than the rest.

An invisible feather stroked the pit of my chest. 

One of you will be coming with me and Androsky to the Bulls game. We’ll be sitting in Androsky’s box. Would that person please stand? 

I remained seated. I gripped the plastic armrests. Martine looked at me, chewing gum and beaming, despite her bruise. Now everyone was waiting and watching me. Only one way to make them stop. I scooted back. Slowly, I stood. Martine clapped, and halfheartedly, the others did the same.

Sixty hours a week for the last ten weeks all to buy a house, she said.

The others stared like they were watching me get groped. 

He wants to buy a house where his little boy can have his own room. He’s a good worker and a great father. That’s what we’re all about here, guys. This is what we do. 

When she finished, they left without looking at me. I followed, kept my gaze downcast. She asked me what I’d wanted to ask her. I told her she’d already answered.

*

Immobilization is a degenerative disease. Night of the game, two blocks from their Tudor, the sight of their weekend get-together, I sat in my Pontiac white-knuckling the steering wheel. The game was to start in two hours. All day, indecision had presided over me like a wraith: stay in bed or make coffee; needed rest or laziness; coffee decreases torpor but increases agitation; beat off and trade stress for torpor; porn is loneliness but imagination is self-harm. I’d watched a chubby but beautiful blonde, her hair wet and her face aflame, laugh and hiss into a ball-gag. I spent time beset by the algorithm, scrolling my ex’s timeline, way back to when I’d been in jail. I checked again to see if she’d said anything subliminal about me. I scrolled Devin’s timeline, which was riddled with aphorisms about work and diet, myriad mediated debates between those who had it figured out and those who did not. I spent two hours thus and ended up on videos of high schoolers brutalizing each other, videos yielded by the search term revenge on bully, but it was impossible to decipher who was who. I graduated to 9/11 jumpers, the fall not as long as I’d remembered. I read the news—another species of rhino extinct—and when I got out of bed, it was 6 PM. Now it was 7:30, hour and a half till tip-off. 

In their enormously insured neighborhood, the houses were armored, like a procession of balaclavas. They were like miniature military compounds. You kept waiting for armed guards, robots on patrol. I pictured families with their backs to walls, shotguns—sawed off, never fired—aimed out at the rest of the world. We weren’t so bad, I whispered as I applied face paint, were we? I kept doing stuff like that, like my life was an impression of a life. 

I got out and walked along the blackened tree-line. Parenthood—the slow surrender of the self. It works better when you don’t ask questions, but would Bill benefit from knowing that, on his behalf, I’d let them hollow me out? Or would he learn from my refusing to sacrifice my principles? I went back to my car and let it heat up. I looked at my face, smeared with black paint. I started to wipe off the paint. Two houses down, a light came on in an upstairs window. A man. Every house has its man, every man his children and self-justification. Families close ranks. I pictured shotguns mounted beneath orthopedic mattresses. I reapplied the paint.

A wooded patch contoured their property. I walked into it and set down the canister of gasoline where you couldn’t see it from the road. I left it there and rounded the koi pond and crouched down in my usual hedge. The house was full of people. Silhouettes milled about, forming groups and breaking off. Every now and then someone stepped to the window in the foyer and a withered face sharpened into focus. When you were young but made enough money to participate in society, you ended up surrounded by older people, a spiritual boon: so much time until you were them, and not to mention the way they beamed, the way they looked at you and saw something in which they needed to believe. Bill’s window was multicolor—aquamarine and green and yellow—and behind the lava lamp’s luminous haze, the silhouettes of children making melee. I laughed—good with the bad. Kids upstairs, adults down. Children were the future and all that. Maybe they needed a counterpoint to the cocktail etiquette on display. I went back to the canister. Then I read Martine’s text: Tell me you’re not flaking. 

We were thirty minutes till tip-off. She’d told me to be there an hour before game time. 

I pocketed my phone and made for the sign. The floodlight rendered my face paint ineffective. I took the sign out of the ground and brought it to where they’d be able to see the blaze from the dining room windows, where there’d be no risk of the house catching fire. I am not a monster. I went back to the wooded patch for the canister. Another text from Martine: you’re seriously going to make me watch this alone with Androsky?

Martine. Alone with Androsky. His penis. I pictured a scene in which an intern brought them buffalo chicken sliders on a silver platter, and Martine ate one and looked over to find Androsky biting his lip. She said it was delicious. He said have another. She said she was okay but thank you. He leaned forward and said no, I think you want another. He watched her eat another, rubbing his thigh, tongue flitting across his lips. 

The front door opened. Parting voices echoed. I managed to fling sign and canister into the wooded patch just before two women stepped off the porch and onto the path.

Blackface, really?

What?

It’s 2016, asshole. 

This is for flashlight tag, I said, but arm-in-arm, they proceeded into the street. I went back to the wooded patch and used a handful of leaves to wipe the gasoline off the sign. Were I to set fire to the sign, people might assume I took issue with the black lives too part. Not true at all. I didn’t want to give these people the satisfaction of being present for a hate crime. I wiped the sign down till it was just a little warped and discolored. I took it to the front yard and stuck it back in its previous holes. I would knock. I would violate court order and tell Devin how I felt. As I stepped onto the porch, the door swung open. I walked past Devin and knocked anyway. He grabbed my sleeve and turned me around and led me by the sleeve toward the wooded patch.

Let’s talk in the wooded patch, I said. I need to talk to you.

They called me, he said. Told me it was some dude in blackface. I knew right away. 

This isn’t blackface. 

You going to some fucked-up sex party or something? 

You’re disgusting, Devin. This is for flashlight tag. 

Do you know what happens when you throw your shitfits? 

We were in the wooded patch. He waited for a car to pass, and then, glancing over his shoulder, he fired up a cigarette. 

I hope you’re not smoking that filth in front of my son. 

I’m saying when you do this, when you have your freakouts, it fucks with all of us. I’m running out of ways to tell Laura you’re going to be okay.

Seems to me you should be thanking your lucky stars for my freakouts. 

Do you know what would happen if she knew you were out here? 

I was going to set your sign on fire.

I should knock you on your ass. 

My son does not back the blue, man. 

You two have talked about this? 

You don’t think I know my own son? 

Are you drinking again? 

What the hell is wrong with you?

You do this shit and she starts drinking, he said, and then he detailed her late nights, her incessant wandering back and forth between bedroom and living room, her falling asleep on the La-Z-Boy, an empty bottle of wine on the adjacent windowsill, the way she’d been showing up to court with sallow skin and purple eye sockets, how she’d yelled at Bill while helping him with his homework, how, the other week when I’d dragged him to the coffee shop, she’d come home crying and spent the afternoon with her headphones on, smoking by the koi pond. He said she felt she’d humiliated herself, but the next day, she was back to believing I could get my head right and have a bigger hand in his life. 

Devin was still talking, still cussing me, but I was feeling it all so pristinely, like it was vivid inside of me, a reality of their lives and mine. 

Take the sign and go, he said.

Hit me.

Fuck no, I’m not hitting you.

I didn’t want to hurt him. I put my hands on his face. I squeezed, not to inflict pain, but to make things very fucking strange. His arm snapped out like a copperhead: I dropped to a knee, and a bright light faded as the pain began to pulsate. Devin paced, came back and put his hand on my shoulder. 

Jesus, Devin, I said.

Motherfucker, just go.

You fucking clocked me.

Take it and go, he said, helping me stand. Figure your shit out. Don’t come back, I’m serious. You do this again it’s going to get real. 

I took the sign and the canister back to my car. It was one of those moments. Maybe you only get two or three in your entire life. Some veil between you and the rest of the world slips and reveals the crystalline nature of every last thing: the moonlight’s sheen on the bladed grass, living room lamplight soft on lush hedges, whoosh of commerce coming off the highway like the voice of God, everything glowing, everything pulsating like the pain in your nose, pulsating with life-force and acting on you all at once, so the sounds are the sights and the sights are the sounds and inside you an aliveness and centrality that almost always eludes. You put the sign and the canister in the trunk. The trunk-slam feels good in your chest. It ripples through blood and bones. Your little boy’s busted face flashes in your mind, but you have a new awareness to take forward. You know there’s time. You can show up late to the game or you can drive north. South of here is the United Center. North of here, just after the northbound ramp that feeds onto the highway, there’s a quick rise in the road. If you hit it going fast enough, for a moment you’ll feel weightless. 

 

Postscript: 

Want me to put a bow on it? I’ll put a bow on it. Martine got fired too. Her twins were born premature. Everyone blamed the blow and the booze and the fact that by the time she realized she was pregnant, it was too late. Health complications. Days and nights in the hospital’s bright white. They left, albeit one with a feeding tube. Eventually that was removed. Eventually she was back at work. But she made Judith—still a temp, happy to do it—clock in and then leave to go take care of her twins. Reader, she couldn’t afford daycare!


Jeff Karr lives in Austin, Texas and teaches American literature, creative writing, and composition at Texas State University. He's querying agents with a novel called Downstrokes, which explores the rise and fall of a harmonica prodigy turned middling punk frontman. He had a dog named Hannah. She had a lot of heart and a lot of talent.

Art by Bri Chapman

Read Next: LEAVE IT by Abby Feden