Francis Bowers was a dangerous man. He held ultimate control over the holiday scheduling at each and every Featherweight Mattress store in the tri-county area.
In prior years, this had not been a real issue, but this year was something else. Francis knew he had a disaster brewing on his hands when Joel Summers, the manager of the second largest store, called him on a Friday morning, bright and early.
“Frank, none of my crew has shown up today. I don’t know what’s going on. The only one who had any reason to act out is Stacy, because her family is holding that reunion this weekend and I told her she still had to work, but I don’t know the first thing about the others. None of them are answering their phones. When I called Steve in Midvale he said that none of his guys would be able to make the trip all the way over here, but you know as well as I do that he only has one kid that drives his mom’s car, and the rest are middle aged champion salesmen. Help me out here.” Joel was practically in a panic, which Francis found mildly unnerving since Joel was the coolest cucumber anyone could ever hope to meet.
“I’ll work it out, Joel, just hang tight for me.” Francis thumbed the phone off and rolled over in bed to have a look at the clock radio that he kept on his Ikea nightstand. 8:30. He relaxed back into his pillows, then started bolt upright. 8:30?? Francis hadn’t slept that late in years. His stores opened at eight on the dot, and he made it a point to be at a different one every single morning the moment the doors unlocked.
Just to make sure his managers were staying on top of things, you know. Got to keep them on their toes.
With a longing glance at the Stairmaster that towered in the corner of his bedroom, Francis resigned himself to having the offest of off days. No protein shake, no Stairmaster, but most painful of all, no leisurely soak in the hot tub downstairs after the workout and before officially starting his day.
Francis rummaged through his walk-in closet for what felt like hours, looking for that one pair of ebony black Louboutins that never failed to bring him out of a funk. He couldn’t even find one. Every other pair of overpriced dress shoes in the closet was neatly shelved in its individual space, but not the fucking Louboutins. He was going to have to fire Shirley and find a new maid. Again.
Francis kicked the closet door and cracked the frame. “Dammit!” he screamed. If Shirley had been in the house, she might have wondered who had broken in, because Francis never cursed. Aloud, anyway. He yanked a pair of Kenneth Coles from the nearest shelf and threw the left one across his bedroom, striking the Frank Auerbach painting he had acquired at great personal expense and knocking it to the floor, where it landed facedown.
He gasped and held a hand to his mouth, horrified at what he had done. “No, no, no,” he muttered to himself as he dropped the right shoe on his way to check on the painting. His hand trembled as he reached out to turn the painting over, but that fell to his side as he saw the irreparable damage that he’d done. The hole went straight through the canvas.
Francis looked up sharply and saw the dark scuff mark that the shoe had made on the wall when it passed through the painting. He stood up and snatched his phone from the Ikea table and furiously dialed Shirley’s number. When the busy signal blared its dah-dah-dah in his ear, he slung the phone even harder than he’d thrown the shoe; the phone fared less well, shattering as it hit the wall across the room.
Fortunately, Francis had missed the second Auerbach that hung opposite the first.
At first glance, he was everything I’d ever hoped to be; I watched him stride confidently into the restaurant and order with an aplomb that I’d never quite been able to manage, all with a smile on his face.He was fearlessly there, and he was taller than everyone else in the shop save one long string bean of a man cowering timidly in a corner, alone with his sandwich and his thoughts.
His work boots were well broken-in, but still clean and presentable. His collared shirt was unwrinkled, but without that starched trying-too-hard look about it. He was shaved, but not clean-shaven; somewhere between the noon bristly look that everyone else wore on their chin at lunchtime and that five o’clock shadow that no one but airbrushed models can pull off perfectly.
I heard him order French onion soup and a club sandwich, hold the mayo, and I respected that bold move. It’s hard to put back a steaming bowl of French onion soup when you know you have meetings scheduled for the rest of the afternoon at which you have to have the perfect physical presentation, including a breath without the stink of onions, a puppy-dog breath, if you will.
His steps echoed in my soul as he waltzed to the pickup counter, heedless of my slack-jawed admiration of him. Thunderously loud steps with those scrubbed and pseudo-polished work boots that no one else paid attention to, save me. Those boots were burning into the soft, wet, gray matter of my mind. After he left, they were all I could think of. Those boots and the way his hair waved back from his unlined forehead like a movie star’s hair. Like the hair of the man I wished I could be.
The boss wrote me up before I got off work that day. He pulled me into his office and told me that he caught me staring at the customers again. I wasn’t staring at the customers that day, I argued. I swore that I wasn’t, but I was lying. Somewhat lying. I was only staring at one. The one that I wanted to be when I grew up. I couldn’t help myself, and besides, the boss wasn’t even there when he came in today. He was off fucking his girlfriend or whatever it is that he does on those long lunch break that he always takes that no one else is ever allowed to indulge in. Like making someone else’s meals is so important that we all have to be at his beck and call all the time anyway.
I didn’t care; I signed the write up and let him file it in my folder without another word of argument when I saw that look in his eyes that says shut up, John, you’ve made enough of a mess out of this one for today, you should just quit while you’re ahead. I quit while I was ahead. One more step on my road to transformation. One more notch in my belt.
The boss let me go and I walked out the door and down the street to home, whistling tunelessly, which is the only way that I know how to whistle. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried. I’ve been practicing my whistle since the first day I realized that I could pucker my lips and blow and make that eldritch sound, but I’ve never gotten good at it.
My keys were clipped to my right hand belt loop, and they jangled dissonantly with the whistling, but I didn’t care; I made a rhythm out of it, something to walk to. It was only two blocks to my apartment. When I reached the door I looked both ways to make sure no one was watching me before I unclipped the keys from my belt loop and let myself in.
I don’t know why I do that; It’s just something that I’ve always done. It feels like an invasion of my privacy for someone to watch me enter my own domicile. My own safe place. The one place that I can truly be myself.
I don’t allow that to happen anymore, not since the last time, when I first moved in. The neighbor always came outside to make sure I wasn’t going to rob him. he always watched me with those beady little eyes in his pudgy round face. Those eyes, those eyes, always boring holes into me until I couldn’t sleep at night for the pain of them.
I spent a little over a year and a half at Brookview after I ran up the stairs and gouged those eyes out with my keys. I don’t know why they didn’t keep me any longer. I think it’s because of the way I licked my lips when I looked at my doctor. She was a tasty little morsel, but I would never ever have given her a try without her permission. She never did anything to me that she wasn’t supposed to. It would have been rude of me to take advantage of her.
A shiver went down my spine as I thought about my doctor, and the neighbor that never did come back to retrieve his belongings from the apartment upstairs. Management kept it empty now. They didn’t kick me out because I paid them my rent annually, from the lump sum payments I received from my parents’ estate.
The boss doesn’t know that I don’t need the money. That’s why he keeps me on at the sandwich shop, even thought he writes me up every time he catches me watching the customers. Or every time one of my coworkers rats me out for watching the customers when the boss is on his long lunch break.
I closed the door behind me, and the snick when the lock engaged was so satisfying that my knees gave way for a moment, and I slid down the door, nearly to the floor before I caught myself and stood back up. I closed my eyes and thought about the man that had come in for lunch, the orderer of the French onion soup,, the wearer of the boots, my idol, my hero, the perfect man, the man that I could never be, no matter how hard I tried and tried and polished myself.
I could never be as confident as he is. I could never fit in like he does. But I can dream about him.
For the first time in my adult life I didn’t put my work uniform immediately into the washing machine when I took it off; I left it on the bathroom floor as I soaped up in the shower, rubbing myself as I thought about the man with the boots. I left it on the bathroom floor as I got out of the shower and toweled myself off, letting the small splashes of water dry on the mirror that hung over the sink. I left it on the floor as I collapsed into my bed, naked and damp and aroused.
I fell asleep, and I dreamed about him. I dreamed that he came back the next day, and he looked into my eyes, and he waited for me out back. I dreamed that when I got off work he took me under his wing, and he taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to be bold and unwavering, how to look someone in the eye until they flinched away, uncomfortable with the strength of my gaze on their skin. He taught me how to make everyone else feel the way that I feel every day.
When I woke I felt that I had soiled the sheets, and my shame was nearly enough to force me into the shower with the straight razor that I keep behind the bathroom mirror that hangs above the sink, but I thought about him, and about how he would handle it, and I decided that it wouldn’t bother him one bit.
He would laugh, and so I laughed. Ha ha ha. He would pull the sheets from the mattress and put them in the washing machine and wash them and that would be the end of it, and so it was that way for me.
I felt better already.
I hope that he comes in for lunch again today. I’m going to make the French onion soup special, just for him.
I got plans for writing things. Big plans. These plans are stupendous. Really.
But jeez, Christmas in retail.
crickets chirp softly
the rain trickles down the trees
heater smells drift up
When Felicia opened the front door that morning, there was a dog sitting on her front steps, a medium sized brown and white dog with short hair and a pointed tail that he whacked good-naturedly on the top step as he cocked his head and stared her down.
Felicia had never owned a dog in her life, but she promptly stepped aside to let this one inside. From then on they were fast friends. Felicia named him Wallace.
Anywhere one went, the other was right behind, and it was a blessing that Hank, the grocery store owner, had known Felicia since she was a little girl, because he believed her when she promised him that Wallace would never be so rude as to shit on the grocery store floor or bite a fellow patron. True to her word, Wallace did neither.
Felicia was not so lucky when she tried to bring Wallace to her next doctor visit. She had no idea that Dr. Vargas had been bitten as a small child by a dog bearing an eerie resemblance to Wallace. She also had no idea that contamination of the bite caused an infection which was the reason that Dr. Vargas always and only wore pants to hide the prosthetic leg that he attached to his stump each and every morning before coming to the office.
No amount of pleading and weeping and promises was going to make Dr. Vargas change his mind, so for the first time in just over four months, Felicia and Wallace spent nearly an hour and a half apart. Wallace was a good boy, so Felicia left him in her car with all of the windows down. The weather was nice enough that the only pain she felt at doing so was leaving her other half.
When the interminably long appointment was finally over, Felicia dashed out the door, and Wallace leaped from the car. They bounded toward each other and met with a crash that any onlooker might have cringed from, but their mutual joy in reuniting kept them from hurting each other or themselves.
Felicia drove them straight home and rewarded her best friend with a handful of his favorite treats.
She then retired to the couch where she spent the next forty minutes on the phone trying to find a doctor that would allow her dog in the exam room with her for checkups. Dr. Breakham was most obliging.