Friday, July 27, 2012

Something Has to Change

The call came the next day. Right around eight thirty, before we climbed into our trucks and went out for the morning.
            “Just let the machine pick it up,” Mark told Mom O. from the doorway. “I’ll deal with it later.”
            Because it sounded so very strange, we all paused when we heard the tinny voice of an automated operator.
            “This is a text to land line message,” the artificial woman intoned.
            We’d agree later how thankful we were for Jason’s sweet tooth. He was hovering over the candy dish when Mom O. collapsed after hearing the operator’s staccato words: “I’m going to kill you.”
            “What the—” Mark lunged to grab the phone but the nasal dial tone was already filling the office.
            Jason caught Mom O. as her knees buckled. Staggered under the weight of her until Charlie hurried to help him ease her onto her chair. He used his big hands to cradle Mom's head so it wouldn’t loll forward. Adam fetched a damp paper towel and pressed it to Mom's grave-colored forehead.
            Mark stared at the handset in his palm. “Dang it! Blocked call.”
            Jason snapped his fingers to get Mark’s attention. “Does Mom have some little pill to take? Like on TV? Should you call 911?”
            “What do I know?” Mark said as he punched numbers into his cell. “Let me ask my sister.” He swept us with his glare, as if Mom O.’s condition was our fault. “See, this is why I didn’t want her to come in today.” Suddenly, with his eyes narrowed and the bones of his face set, he focused on Charlie. We’d never seen Mark that mad, that mean, ever.
            “You need to get that . . . that . . . wife of yours under control, Charlie," he said as his pointer finger sliced at the air.  "And just so you know, the police are involved. I swear, if anything . . .” His voice trailed off as he observed Charlie’s face. Noticed how his soft, brown eyes possessed no anger. Only embarrassment and a deep sadness.


The next Monday, on Mom O.’s first day back to work, Charlie quit.
            “The fracking outfit finally made me an offer,” he told us at the end of the day. “Only thing is, the job’s not local. The boss man had hoped to set up shop here, but the folks protesting in front of the courthouse every Wednesday freaked him out. So for now, I’ll be working in Colorado for three weeks, then home for one.”
            On his side of the desk, Mark grimaced. “Charlie, I hope this isn’t because—”
            Charlie shook his head. “No worries, Mark,” he said. “This has been in the works for awhile now.”
            Mark smiled but it was a sad smile. “We’ll sure miss you, man.” He glanced at the rest of us. “No offense to these guys, but you’re about the best worker Mom O. and I ever had.”
            We huffed in unison but no one paid us any mind.
            Charlie rubbed his hands on his jeans. “Thanks for that, Mark,” he said. “The cool thing is, I won’t have to pay for hotel and meals every day. My brother and his wife live out there. Said I could stay with them.”
            He turned to face Mom O. when he heard her sniffling. “And Mom . . . Gosh, I hate to go. Really I do. With the busy season coming and all. But the money’s too good to pass up. We should be able to dig ourselves out of the red within a year or two. Only thing is . . . I’m going to miss Jeremiah and Hannah something awful.”
            Our eyes collided as we acknowledged the name he didn’t say.
            “Oh,” Charlie said, “and Vandalia of course.”
            Our eyebrows rose and fell together before we glanced away.
            Mark stood. Walked over to Charlie and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I can check on them from time to time, if you want.”
            Charlie gazed up at him. Drew a long, shaggy breath. “That’d be great, Mark. Actually, I’d like to ask a favor. You can say no if you want. Can you deposit my last paycheck for me? I'll get you a bank slip.”
            Mark’s eyes widened but then he relaxed them. Nodded. “Sure, man. I can do that. And you have vacation pay coming too since you all didn't go anywhere this year or last. I can deposit that check the week after.”
            Charlie nodded then turned to us. Extended his hand. “Nice knowing you guys and working with you, for what? Five years now?”
            Adam drew Charlie into a hug.  Slapped him on the back. “At least five,” he said. “Good luck, buddy. Colorado? Really? Bet it’s beautiful out there.”
            Charlie moved toward Mom O.’s desk. Grabbed her wrists and gently heaved her to standing. Encircled her in his burly arms and carefully hoisted her  an inch off the ground.
            Mom O. giggled. “Easy does it, Charlie.” When he let her feet touch ground she cupped his scruffy cheek. “I hear their mountains are bigger than ours,” she said. “I don't believe it. Send me a post card, won’t you?”
            “Sure thing, Mom,” Charlie said after he used his handkerchief to dab at her tears.
            She sniffed again and flipped her hands at him. “Go on now. And you take care, Charlie. Make good choices, you hear? That’s what I always tell Mark. Don’t I, Mark?”
            Mark nodded and smiled his sad smile again. “She does indeed. All the time.”

(You're almost to the end of this short story. If you wanna start at the beginning, click here: "Vandalia and Charlie.")

Friday, July 20, 2012

Keyed Up

The next morning, Mark was fiddling with the coffee when we arrived.
            “What’s up, boss?” Adam said.
            Mark glanced over his shoulder, then returned to his task. “Just changing out the coffee,” he said as he replaced the lid on the Maxwell House can. “I’m putting decaf in the canister. Maybe it’ll keep Mom O. from getting so jacked up. Her blood pressure was through the roof last night.”
            Right then we heard her van door slam outside. Mark rushed to drop into his chair. Put his pointer finger to his mouth and shook his head.
            “Don’t say anything,” he mouthed.
            As soon as the screen door swung open, we were confronted with the aroma of roses. That in itself was startling but then there was the issue of Mom O.’s mouth. She was sporting lipstick. A bright pink hue. On a different day we would discuss whether or not she’d applied blush as well.
            After she set her and Mark’s lunches down and hung her jacket up, she faced us. Punched her hips with her fists and proceeded to throw words at us with her fuschia mouth.
            “I don’t want to hear a peep out of you all,” she said, “about my lips or my perfume. The sheriff will be arriving shortly to launch an investigation and I want to look my professional best.”
            She ignored our mouths hanging open. Sashayed, indeed it was that kind of movement, over to the coffee shelves and started doling grounds into a filter. We would wonder later if cosmetics did that to a woman, made her more feminine on the inside as well as the exterior. Or perhaps it was the thought of Sheriff Kevin Dooley. During our discussion, Adam announced with great fervor he wanted to be just like Mr. Dooley when he got older. “Powerful in stature and calling,” Adam said. “Even at his age. What is he? Sixty-five? Seventy?”
            “My van got keyed last night,” Mom O. said. “Of course this is the United States of America and all, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but I’m pretty sure I know who is not innocent in this particular situation.”
            Jason’s hand surreptitiously headed for the treat bowl, but Mom O.’s glare stopped him.
            “Can you not wait until ten in the cotton-picking morning to assuage your craving for sweets, Jason? For crying out loud!”
            While Jason winced like he’d been slapped, Adam stood and went over to the window. Slid the right half of the drape to the side and peered out.
            “Is it bad, Mom?”
            Mom snorted. “I’d say it’s bad,” she said. “Even has words.” She held up a finger for each one she recited. “Fat. Old. And then it would seem she was starting in on another deragatory term that starts with a B before she decided to flee the crime scene.”
            Adam let the curtain fall and returned to his chair.
            No one said or did anything while Mom O. held the trash can under the coffee shelf and brushed stray grounds into it. Flipped the toggle on the coffee machine and returned to her desk. She glowered at us before she sat.
            “Go on now,” she said. “Start your day.”


After lunch, Mark eyed Mom O. as she took her blood pressure. “What is it?”
            “One forty five,” she said, as she tugged the Velcro cuff off her arm.
            “Not horrible, I suppose,” Mark said. “Considering.”
            Mom O. stood. Made her way to the warehouse door and stepped into the darkness. Threw the light switch. We heard her footsteps fade then return.
She paused in the doorway. “Where’s Charlie?”
“He went back out already,” Mark said. “Why?”
Mom O. didn’t answer. She packed up the remains of her lunch and set it on the floor against the wall behind her chair. Hauled her sizeable purse up onto her lap and rooted around inside. After a minute, she extended her arm in our direction and opened her fist to reveal a TracPhone.
“I bought this at the dollar store this morning,” she said. “How do you do that thing where they can’t trace your number?”
            Adam leaned forward and nudged the phone back to her. “Just punch star sixty seven, Mom.”
            She studied the cell for a moment then slid it over the desk to Adam again.
            “How do you turn it on?” she said. “And dial it?”
            Adam picked the phone up. “Give me the number, Mom.” He hit the power button and keyed in the phone number she handed him on a phone message slip. He joined her on her side of the desk and showed her the phone in his palm.
            “Just press the button with the little green phone on it when you’re ready,” he told her.
            We busied ourselves with paperwork to keep from cracking up as Mom O. struggled to hold the phone to her ear and cover her mouth with a hanky at the same time.
             We snickered behind our hands at the way she pitched her voice way down low. She shot mad eyes at us and twirled her chair to face the wall instead of us.
“Yes, indeed, you can help me,” she said. “It has come to my attention that suspicious, very suspicious mind you, activity is occurring on a regular basis at the end of Jake's Run Road. Children and animals may be at risk. I highly suggest investigators be dispatched immediately.”
            We heard the voice on the other line murmur, but we couldn’t make out the words. We all jumped when Mom O. shook her head so hard her glasses flew to the floor.
            “Absolutely not,” she said in her fake voice. “I feel I would endanger myself and perhaps my entire family if I revealed my identity. I am simply doing my civic duty to protect children and animals that can’t protect themselves.”
            Mom retrieved her glasses and spun her chair back around. Reached for her message pad and a pen. “And what’s that number?”
            She scrawled the information down as it was given. Listened for another moment before her eyes bugged out.
            “What part of no do you not understand?” she barked. “I told you once. I’ll tell you twice, missy. I'm not giving my name!”
            With that, she dropped the phone and the handkerchief on the desk. Stabbed at the off button with her pointer finger. Placed a hand over her heart as if to slow its tempo. She used the hanky to blot at her forehead and throat. 
            “You don’t think they can figure out who I am, do you?”
            Mark walked around Mom’s desk, the blood pressure cuff in his hand. “Arm,” he said.

(If you'd like to know what the heck is going on, click here: 
"Vandalia and Charlie." That's where this short story begins.) 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Chessie Bites the Dust

We never realized what a heart Mom O. had for animals until the day Mark had to leave the warehouse to help Charlie bury his dog. After lunch, Van had phoned the office, hysterical as all get out. Mom O’Dell held the phone away from her ear so Van’s volume wouldn’t damage her hearing. We heard every detail of the conversation.
            “Now, Vandalia,” Mom O. said. “Calm down. I can’t make out a word you’re saying. Who is dead?”
            Van’s tone made us all wince. “Chessie is!” she said. “Charlie’s dog. He’s had her since he was sixteen and I swear, sometimes I think he loves her more’n me. Now she’s dead. Strangled and hanging over the chain link fence. Tell Charlie to get home right now. He’s gotta get her down before the kids wake from their nap!”
            To us, as soon as Van said the bit about strangled and hanging, Mom O. seemed to come perilously close to fainting dead away. Adam scooted his folding chair closer to her desk and patted her shoulder. Not a touchy feely gal, Mom tolerated it that day. Appeared to maybe even derive strength from it.
            Right before Mom O. spoke, she reached out and grabbed her blood pressure monitor. Latched onto it so tightly the skin on her age-spotty knuckles looked bleached.
            “You need to stay calm, Vandalia,” Mom said. “For the children. Now tell me, how exactly did the poor thing manage to choke itself?”
            Van’s huff was easy for us to hear. “She runs away all the da— dang time, Mom O.,” Van said. She paused a moment and when she resumed, her voice sounded slightly more collected. “She digs out under the fence. She busts through the gate. And here lately she’s taken to trying to climb over. So this morning, I tied her up. Inside the dog run.”
            Mom O. was now blinking non-stop, to try to staunch the flow of her tears, we’d surmise later. When a stream of snot began to creek toward her mouth, Adam plucked a tissue out of the box on the desk and dabbed at her face. She swatted him away.
            “Well, surely Chessie barked or howled or something,” Mom O. said.
            “But that’s the problem, Mom,” Van wailed. “She didn’t. Because . . . Because . . .”
            Mom O.’s steely eyebrows tangled together and her raisin eyes practically disappeared.           
            “Because why, Van?” Her words marched out individually and defined.
            Van didn’t answer right away. When she did, it sounded as if she was reading from a Hollywood script.
            “Oh, Mother O’Dell,” she began. Her voice was nearly impossible to make out at first. A wheedle really. “Do you remember what it was like? To have a house to care for? And animals? And babies? And a husband? And—” Her questions crescendoed and each item she added was imbued with more drama than the last.
            Mom O. cut her off, almost without moving her lips. “Get to the point, Van.”
            Our eyebrows lifted in unison as we heard Van draw a trembling breath.
            “Well,” she said, “at the beginning of summer when Chessie started staying outside the better part of the day, it occurred to me her howling might keep the kids from their naps, and you know they need their naps.”
            Mom yacked her free hand and rolled her eyes. “The point, Van,” she said. “The point.”
            “So last week I drove to the pet superstore up at the strip mall and bought a . . . bought a . . .” Van seemed to run out of gas about then.
            Mom O.’s gaze drilled a hole in the paneled wall over our heads. “A what, Van? What did you buy?”
            We leaned in to hear Van’s answer.
            “A barker breaker kit.”
            In one motion, Mom O. both stood and knocked her rolly chair to the ground. She gripped her considerable waist with one hand and clenched the phone with the other. Her eyes were squenched shut as if she was picturing the whole scene play out on her eyelids. After a minute, she transferred her free hand from her waist to her cheek. To scrape a tear away.
            “And this morning,” Mom said, “poor Chessie didn’t dare make a peep for fear she’d get the living daylights shocked out of her. That’s what you’re saying, Van, right? Right?”
            At that point the only thing coming from the phone was that blubbering racket girls make when a serious crying fit takes hold. Mom O. sneered and slammed the receiver into its cradle. Headed toward the warehouse door, her elbows pumping something fierce.
            “Mark!” she called from the doorway. “Charlie. Get over here. Now!” When she didn't get a response she ventured into the cool shadows of the warehouse.
            We followed close enough to hear her mutter. “Wouldn’t surprise me if that harlot was entertaining visitors of the male persuasion ‘round about the time Chessie choked. Wouldn’t surprise me a-tall.”
            We dropped back lest Mom O’Dell discover our proximity and aim her anger at us.
            “Her’s pissed,” Adam said as he shouldered the office door for us.
            "Her's most definitely pissed," Jason said as he reached for the treat bowl.

(This is an ongoing short story. If you'd like to read the whole thing, click here: "Vandalia and Charlie." That's where the saga starts.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Up to No Good

Once Charlie started riding his mountain bike to the warehouse, we took turns giving him a lift home.
            The first afternoon Van didn’t pick him up, Charlie’d addressed us. “Now that we have Jeremiah and Hannah,” he said, “Vandalia needs the car more than I do.”
            “She’s always had the car, Charlie,” Mark pointed out as he shook his hand violently to get the key out of the office door lock. “Did it get repo’d?”
            Charlie's weight fell against Mark's for a moment, then he straightened. Nodded.
            “Tell you what,” he said. He seemed to be trying to laugh. “Vandalia’s not at all happy being confined to the house.”
            Mark laid his arm across Charlie’s shoulders. “I’ll keep an eye out for a decent used vehicle for you guys. Make some calls in the morning.”
            “Where all’d she used to go during the day?” Jason said.
            Charlie shrugged. “I have no idea. Grocery store maybe? Toys R Us?”
            Truth be told, we’d heard tales about how Van spent her days, how sometimes a car or two might be seen outside their place ‘round about the little ones’ naptime. We brought it up in the office one day before Charlie returned from his route.
            “Don’t say anything,” Mark said. “It’s a small town. Sooner or later, he’ll find out.”
            Mom O. had nodded approvingly, her lips forming a definitive, though nearly colorless, line. In an instance of rare tenderness she slapped her blood pressure monitor out of the way to reach across the desk toward Mark. Wiggled her fingers when he didn’t stretch his hand out to meet hers.
            “I taught him good,” she told us. “That if you can’t say anything nice about a person, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
            We’d exchanged a glance in that moment, as if we were all remembering the strumpet-trollop-hussy day, but we stayed silent. None of us cared to engage Mom O. in a verbal skirmish. Her tongue was far too sharp. Not to mention, her signature was required on our paychecks.


One morning Mark’s sister came and fetched Mom O. to take her to the heart doctor.
            “I’m fairly certain I’ll be fine to drive afterward,” Mom O. said as she slipped her arms into her windbreaker sleeves.
            “Just go, Mom,” Mark said. “Try to relax a little while you’re out. Have lunch maybe.” He tucked a twenty into his sister’s palm as they turned to go. “I mean it,” he mouthed.
            As Mom O. headed toward the door she paused. "Oh, and if Vandalia’s friend Lucy drops by for Charlie’s paycheck, it’s there in my desk drawer.” She’d taken to using Van’s full name ever since she learned Van had lost her mother early on.
            After the door clicked shut, we all faced Mark. Waited for him to glance up. When he did, his mouth fell open.
            “What?” he said.
            “She’s up to no good, boss,” Jason said.
            Mark shook his head. “Who is?”
            “Van,” Adam said. “She’s been ragging on Charlie twenty four seven. Trying to get him to quit here."
           Jason stood on his tiptoes. Peered out the window to check if anyone was coming.
          "She wants him to get a job driving one of those water trucks," he said, "for a fracking outfit. These days there's tons of ads in the paper looking for folks with a Class A license.
            Mark removed his reading glasses. Sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
            "I don't need this," he said. "Not right now, I don't. Our busy season is right around the corner." 
            “You gotta do something, boss,” Jason said. “Besides making a fool of him, now she’s gonna force him to leave a good job with decent pay and—”
            Mark signed the letters Mom O. had left in a neat stack on the edge of his desk.
            “The way I see it,” he said without looking up, “it’s not really our business.”
            Adam cracked his knuckles and we all cringed at the sound of it. “We just thought you should know,” he said. “In case you . . .”
            Mark rolled his chair back from the desk until it struck the wall. Rotated it around to face the coffeemaker. He reached for a mug then seemed to freeze.
            “Actually,” he said over his shoulder, “there's no telling how it'll go with those two. Keep your eyes peeled. Let me know if you run across someone who might fit in good down here. Just in case.”

Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Need the second part of the story? Click here.  


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