It was after midnight when the phone rang. My wife, Sheila, and I had been asleep for a couple of hours when the noise woke me. I must have jumped out of bed on the first Boo-doo-boo-doo-boo!
I hit the floor with my heart thumping, adrenaline coursing through my body. On my hands and knees, I jammed my arm underneath the bed, frantically searching for my gas mask.
Somewhere in the back of my mind there were voices shouting, sounds of the unadulterated excitement and fear and groaning of twenty-four men taking precautionary measures against a nighttime air attack. Then I heard another voice, this one closer, different, but I wasn’t listening to the words and they didn’t register. I heard them unconsciously, the way you hear a clock ticking without ever noticing.
Still searching under the bed, feeling around in the dark, I was vaguely aware of a knot forming in my throat. Why isn’t it there? I wondered. Where is it? Am I going to die?
More voices, muffled voices, and the sounds of heavy rubber being slapped around, nylon straps being cinched tight and popped under tension. Now someone else was shouting, a single voice, sounding different somehow, but the words still didn’t register.
I made long sweeps with my arm, my hand raking the carpet. Where the hell was it? It was dark in the bedroom, so I couldn’t see anything beneath the bed. My breathing was quick and shallow and my tongue felt dry and thick as I extended my arm as far as I could reach beneath the bed, desperate to make contact with that smooth, heavy canvas bag that contained my life-support system.
During the war I had lived this scenario every single night for forty-one nights: It was long after dark and everyone was asleep. Without warning, the siren erupted with its loud, concussive wail and instantly the entire camp was awake. We reached beneath our cots and grabbed our gas masks, slipped them over our faces, pulled the straps tight and sealed them shut. Situated next to our camp was a company of Royal British Marines, part of the allied coalition who worked with us to root out Saddam’s troops from Kuwait. The Brits operated the siren and loudspeaker system, and on some nights the wailing of the siren was accompanied by a British voice saying Gas, gas, gas!
But it was the waiting that was terrifying. Where the missile would strike or what type of payload its warhead carried was anyone’s guess. Though we had our gas masks and MOPP suits, the thought of having to seal yourself inside them during a chemical attack was terrifying. Wearing them was hot and you never could see very well. Their thick rubber muffled your voice such that you had to shout in order to be heard. Wearing mine made me feel claustrophobic. I also felt helpless because, during missile attacks, my rifle was useless.
Sitting around in our masks, listening to the sirens wailing, the same kind of sirens they sound during tornadoes or other natural disasters, was like waiting for death to come knock on our door. We knew he was around, but we never knew quite when or where he would appear.
Still shaking, heart still thumping, and still I raked my hand beneath the bed, trying to pull out that gas mask. Where the hell is it? I wondered.
“James, the phone! It’s only the phone!” yelled Sheila. Recognizing her voice, I sat up, still not conscious of the setting, the time, the circumstance. She came around the bed, moved down beside me on the floor where she clamped her hands to my shoulders and shook me in quick, hard jolts. She put her face close to mine and yelled: “It’s only the phone!”
I leaned back against the wall, out of breath, my T-shirt and face sweaty. About this time, it all began to come back to me: my home, my wife, my new life in Texas, the fact that I’d been home for five months.
Why is this happening to me? I wondered.
As I seldom thought about the war anymore, I assumed everything was fine. And most days were. I never considered that I had brought home anything other than unpleasant memories. But later I would realize that I was what the VA counselors tell you about. I was one of those statistics, the kind of guy they talk about on those television commercials – You don’t have to go through this alone. You are not alone.
This cycle of ringing didn’t bother me so much. I was beginning to calm down and gain some perspective. But then I got angry. Sheila stepped over me and answered the phone. Her sweet, warm scent filled my head and reminded me that I was indeed home.
“Oh, hey Carmen,” she said. Her voice was soft and low. “No, no problem. Hey, can I call you tomorrow? James is feeling bad tonight. Okay.”
She hung up the phone and moved down beside me on the floor.
“Why the hell does she call in the middle of the night?” I said. “She drunk again?”
“Honey, she’s still single. She doesn’t go to bed as early as we do.”
My heart was still beating much too quickly, jabbing against my chest like it was trying to hammer its way out. I felt like I had just returned from a run, though I didn’t feel invigorated. I was confused and angry, at the telephone, at my wife’s friend for calling so late. “No kidding, she’s probably out whoring around.”
“James! That’s enough. You have no right to…”
“She wakes me up like this again, I’m going to let her have it,” I said.
I stood up, walked into the bathroom and splashed some water on my face. For a moment, I thought about going downstairs for a beer, but I was to start a new job in the morning and needed to sleep. I took a shot of mouthwash, gargled, and changed into a dry T-shirt. When I got back into bed, Sheila moved over next to me and wrapped her right arm around me, squeezed. I felt her forehead resting on the back of my head, her warm breath on my neck. She patted my chest.
“You just need to take it easy. Relax.”
I laid there waiting for the fire in my mind to smolder out, still seething at Carmen for calling so late, being so damned inconsiderate. It was almost 2 a.m.
“You want to talk about it?” she said, running her hand across my chest, across my stomach and down over my abdomen. She kissed the back of my neck.
“No, I’m all right,” I said, which was a lie and we both knew it.
The Arabian Desert was a monotonous, depressing place with rolling dunes of orange-gold sand for as far as the eye could see. There I endured both the coldest and warmest temperatures I’ve ever experienced, and saw hundreds of burned and bombed out Mercedes cars and buses lining the highways. Most of the cars had diesel engines, so the air was thick and hazy with smog. Of course, when the retreating Iraqis began setting fire to all the Kuwaiti oil wells, the billowing smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun and turned the daytime sky to night. For a long time I wondered how these pollutants were going to affect the environment, my health.
I recall thinking at one point that I would probably never come back home alive. If Saddam’s missiles didn’t get me, I reasoned, then one of the Muslim factions sympathetic to his cause, which I could never keep track of, would hit me in a drive-by shooting while I stood guard duty or walked a night patrol. If the smog and airborne carcinogens, which had turned my snot black the day I arrived in country, didn’t kill me, then the vaccinations we were being given to protect us against all those chemical agents Saddam was firing at us surely would. If not right then, maybe three years later. Or five.
So why was all this coming back to me now, nearly half a year after I had come home? Except for an occasional television commercial or bumper sticker on some car, I just didn’t think about it. I was too busy, I guess, working temporary jobs, hoping one of them would turn permanent. I was also exercising regularly: running, lifting weights, trying to keep my body fit. My mind seemed completely on board with everything. What part of me wouldn’t let my wartime experiences go? And why were they coming back to me now? Was it possible these things had been percolating inside me all along and that maybe I just hadn’t noticed?
Thinking back, the night of the telephone call was the worst incident, but not the first. A couple of weeks earlier I had been driving alone in my car when a siren began blaring. It was one of those early-warning sirens that the city’s emergency management tests every Saturday at noon, and it was the same kind of siren they used during the war to announce an impending missile strike or gas attack.
When I heard the blaring, I was seized with that same feeling of absolute amazement, terror and helplessness. I was also very angry. The feeling was so powerful that it seemed I was jerked back in time to the war with the intensity of a lightning strike. I saw once again those dead Iraqi soldiers we used to pull from the Persian Gulf, bloated, their heads the size of basketballs, skin sloughing off their faces like hot taffy, and their open eyes lifeless, cold, indifferent. Hearing that siren wailing, it was as though my present life was strangely nonexistent, forgotten, like I had never left the war and come home. Mostly though, I was scared, scared at what this feeling might cause me to do.
I drove past the siren tower as quickly as I could, sweating, chest pounding, knuckles bone-white and locked to the steering wheel. If I had seen the man who had been running the siren, I’m afraid of what I may have done to him.
By the time I returned home I had calmed down, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that siren and how angry and helpless I had felt that time the lieutenant got our platoon lost in the desert; how my eyes burned and blurred after being plugged with storm-driven sand; the smell of rotting feet from living for weeks in those waterlogged fighting holes; the vegetable-oil taste of the Saudi Arabian Pepsi with its Arabic writing on the can; the souvenirs my buddies were taking back home with them, against orders. I hadn’t wanted a damn thing from over there, yet it seemed that I had brought home something after all.
I sat in front of the television the rest of the day, using the tube as a distraction from myself, from Sheila, from reality. That evening, when Sheila asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and that I’d rather stay home. I sat there on the sofa until well past dark, playing and replaying the photo slide show in my mind, trying to determine which images to keep and which to cast out.
After the night of the phone call I could see where all this was leading me. I was going to end up like one of the Vietnam vets I used to see around town, years out of the war and unable to integrate back into the real world and function normally. Knowing this, I was worried that Sheila might leave me. We had been married only a few years and I think my being away in the Persian Gulf those six months had taken its toll on her. In some ways I was surprised we were still together. Why had she stayed around through all the volatility, the anxiety and uncertainty of being placed on alert, of late night phone calls telling you to pack your gear because you were deploying within the next few hours? She hadn’t signed up for all this; I had. Sheila could have had it much easier by marrying a civilian. And she thought all of that was behind us, thought everything was fine now that I was home. It should have been. But I was beginning to see that part of me was still overseas.
I knew that somehow I needed to put all that behind me and come home. I needed to meld into society, step back in line and immerse myself in the task of moving on. I was only twenty-four and most of my life was ahead of me. If I was ever going to amount to anything, I knew I needed to be busy, to consume myself so fully with work that I wouldn’t have time to think about the past. And so I was optimistic that the new job I was starting the next day would help me do this.
At 8:00 on a Monday morning I walked into a business called Pagers Plus, which was located next to a nail and tanning salon in a north-Dallas strip mall. There, I introduced myself to the receptionist who was seated in the lobby and told her I was to start work that day.
“Oh, the new guy,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” Then her phone buzzed and she held up a finger indicating that I needed to wait while she answered the call. “It’s a great day at Pagers Plus. How can we help connect you today?”
As I stood there waiting I considered what she had said: “the new guy.” I was the fucking new guy. The FNG. I tried to push this out of my mind, but there it was and I couldn’t deny it. Fucking new guy. Everyone hated the new guy. Thinking back to the day I arrived in Saudi Arabia, the day that sergeant introduced me to the company lieutenant, saying “Here’s the new guy,” and the lieutenant ignoring me for several minutes before telling me where to report and what to do, I was reminded that I had been the new guy before.
“Oh, you’re the new guy,” came a new voice, this one belonging to a girl about my age, with wire glasses and long, brown pigtails. She walked over to me, smiled and extended her hand. “I’m Rhonda, the sales manager. I’ll be your supervisor. Please follow me.”
I followed her into a small office where a half-dozen people sat at desks wearing headsets. These headsets were outfitted with tiny foam-tipped speakers that curved around their chins, hovering near the corners of their mouths. She led me to an empty desk at the far end of the space and motioned with her hand. “This will be your desk. Go ahead and read through these papers and I’ll be back in a minute to help get you set up.”
I took a seat and looked around. The others were talking into the speakers on their headsets, saying things like, I recommend this model and No, for that you would have to upgrade to this plan. The agency that sent me here told me I’d be selling pagers and they assured me that this industry was growing, that this could be a long-term assignment. My previous assignment had been a two-month stint with an investment firm, which had ended the week before at the conclusion of the company’s annual direct-mail campaign. It was a shitty job because it was all data entry. Truthfully, I was glad it was behind me. But I was optimistic about this new job because I knew that it wasn’t just sitting in front of the computer all day. I’d actually be speaking to people, having contact with others.
I sat back in the chair and picked up a brochure and a thin stack of papers, filling my nose with the scent of corporate America: cheap coffee, industrial carpet, my new colleagues’ perfumes and colognes. The brochure contained photos and descriptions of several different Motorola pagers, while the information on the papers was divided into sections: Mission, Purpose and Strategy. Beneath Strategy was a script, beginning with the words “Hi, my name is _____.”
Presently, a tall slender man walked through the front of the office holding a paper coffee cup. He had a strained look on his face and as he walked by he eyed me before disappearing into the reception area. A few minutes later he reappeared, walking in the opposite direction and again glancing over at me. I nodded but the man didn’t return my gesture. A moment later he disappeared into another office on the opposite side of the room.
Rhonda returned after several minutes and she pulled up a chair at the desk next to mine.
“Did you figure out what we’re doing yet?”
“Selling life insurance?” Seeing the vibrant expression fade from her face, I grabbed the pager brochure and said, “Oh, I’m kidding. I think I know what we’re doing.”
“Good,” she said, scooting back in her seat. Then she kicked off her shoes, raised her legs up off the ground and crossed them in the seat. This made her sit a few inches higher than before. “Now, before you start making calls, we need to practice.”
She began to explain how the phone system worked, how to operate the headset, how to diagnose a potential customer’s needs, and finally how to recommend a pager and service plan based on this information. She told me that we were concentrating our efforts on the Florida panhandle, and since the company had only just begun to target this area, the market here was wide open. “Do you know anyone in the Florida panhandle who might be thinking about a pager?” she asked me. “We could start with them.”
I told her I did not, that I had never been to Florida.
“That’s all right. We work from these contact sheets,” she said, handing me a new stack of papers containing a list of names, in alphabetical order. Beside each name was a telephone number and address, which were all in Pensacola, Florida. “We’re concentrating on Pensacola and Tallahassee because these are the areas where people are most likely to have jobs. They’re the ones who’ll be able to afford to carry a pager.” she said.
“OK, let’s practice,” she said. “Pretend I’m a potential customer and you’re calling me.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was only 9:15 and already I was wondering how much time we were going to spend practicing. Even though I just walked through the door, knew very little about pagers, I was ready to get going on my own. My confidence and independent spirit told me I’d figure things out as I went along. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Ring, ring…Hello?” she said.
“Hi, my name is James and I’m with Pagers Plus,” I said, reading from the script. I tried to keep my voice down so the other employees wouldn’t hear me because I felt stupid having to practice like this.
I remembered being nineteen years old and the sergeant of the guard handing me a 30-round clip of ammunition one evening as I reported for guard duty at Fort Bragg, where I was stationed in North Carolina. It was my first time standing guard at night and as I pushed the clip into my M-16, the SOG warned me about falling asleep. “You fall asleep and we’re all dead,” he said. “The enemy gets their hands on our weapons and ammo, we’re dead. Our lives are in your hands.” Though this was during a time of peace, it didn’t matter. In the military, nothing was ever so important as security and since leaving the service civilian life had seemed like a cake walk, by comparison.
Following the script, I said, “I’m calling to ask if you would be interested in receiving a free Motorola pager.”
“Sure, what do I have to do?”
“It would require a one-year service plan. If you’re interested, I would just need to ask you a few questions to determine which plan would be best for you.”
“Okay. Would you use a pager mostly for business or personal use?”
“Oh, keeping in touch with friends, mostly.”
“Friends?” I said. “You don’t need a pager for that.”
At this, Rhonda was silenced. She had that look on her face that told me she didn’t know what to say, didn’t know whether I was kidding or serious. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “Okay. Let’s back up and start from the beginning. This is going to take a while.”
Monday was my first day at Pagers Plus and by Wednesday I was actually making calls on my own, trying to interest people in a free Motorola pager. I sat at my desk beside the other sales reps, a headset clamped to my ears, reading from the script, listening carefully to the customers’ responses and trying to sound like I was pager savvy. Which, in fact, I wasn’t. But I had the script, the product brochures, and the confidence and determination the service had instilled in me. If I could hit a dinner plate-sized bullseye at 500 meters, I reasoned, if I could rig, camouflage and detonate a claymore mine without killing myself in the process, I knew that I could push pagers on the public. Once, it nearly worked and I sensed an imminent commitment from a woman who told me she was looking for a way to stay connected to her mother, who lived somewhere in the North and who was suffering from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder. But just as I was about to ask her which address I could send her free pager to, our conversation was interrupted by a cacophony of growling and squealing, at which point the woman told me her terrier Butch had gotten a hold of the cat and she promptly hung up the phone. I was unable to reach her when I called back that afternoon.
As a perk of the job, the company loaned me a new top-of-the-line Motorola alpha-numeric pager, which I wore clipped to my belt like I was someone important. I had little use for a pager and only once did it ever go off. It was Sheila’s work number, so I called her back.
“Honey, I’m thinking about painting the bedroom and I want to run these colors by you,” she said.
“What? Painting?” I said. It was nearly lunchtime and I was intent on making it through another page of contacts before knocking off to eat.
“I was reading an article in Redbook and it says a nice soothing green may be the best color to help women conceive. Which color do you like? Serenity…it’s like a very light seafoam green, or…”
“Serenity? Babe, I’m busy. I can’t talk about colors and paint. I have work to do,” I said, trying to keep my voice down.
“But you haven’t heard the other color.”
“I have to go. I’ll see you tonight,” I said, hanging up the phone.
I wasn’t too keen on the idea of having a baby anytime soon, but I never told Sheila this. After the night of the phone call, I was certain that she must have some misgivings about my state of mind, and my admission that I wasn’t interested in having a baby would have substantiated this for her. After that night, I felt like an implicit line had been drawn in the sand between us. Either I could cross that line and get on board with my new life, or I was doomed to be left alone to figure it out on my own.
I was certainly trying to get on board, but I still wasn’t keen on having a baby. Work, then, seemed like a convenient excuse. Surely Sheila, a career woman herself, could understand this.
Mostly though, I didn’t want the others there in the office to hear me on a personal call. I thought it might reflect poorly on me, and I wasn’t sure if management monitored our calls because they were so diligent about tracking our sales performance.
A large dry-erase board had been fitted to one of the walls of the office where I worked. On this board was a graph with a horizontal line drawn near the bottom. This line, I was told, represented the baseline from which all the pager sales staff began their efforts. Vertical black bars, of varying heights, stretched upward from this line and corresponded with numerical values appearing at the left-hand side of the board: 25, 50, 100. At the top of each black bar was a name: Mickey, Angela, Janice, Albert, Sonny and Marcus. My name had been added to the far right side of the board. But as I had yet to make my first sale, there was no black bar beneath my name. Instead, a short red bar had been drawn into my column, beneath the baseline. This, Rhonda explained, indicated that I was essentially in the red as far as the company was concerned. She told me that the company had invested a certain amount of money in training me and that I would need to sell five service plans in order for it to recoup its investment.
I wondered how the company could consider a couple of days of reading through a script with my boss as an investment. It wasn’t like they were issuing me uniforms, a sleeping bag, weapon and ammunition. Besides, we were selling pagers, not worldwide peace or prosperity.
But I also realized that it didn’t matter what I thought. I was the employee and I needed to get the monkey off my back and sell something. This didn’t seem so difficult to do, but the dry-erase board and the phone call about paint and all the other distractions seemed like barriers to success. It was beginning to aggravate me because I knew that I could do this.
As I dialed the next number on the contact sheet, I wondered briefly what serenity looked like.
On Thursday I sold my first pager service plan. It was bound to happen, I suppose. The customer, the wife of a naval aviator stationed in Pensacola, wanted a pager to help keep in touch with her husband who was often away on duty. The one-year agreement entitled her to a free, entry-level pager, but she opted to pay extra and upgrade to the alpha-numeric job like the one I wore on my belt. I told her that she wouldn’t be disappointed with her choice and before hanging up I wished her happy paging as my script directed me to do.
That afternoon, Roy, the tall lugubrious-looking owner of the company, who liked to stroll around the office sipping coffee from paper cups that featured pictures of playing cards – Ace, King, Queen, etc. – walked up to the dry-erase board on the wall and, with the quick flick of his eraser, reduced the size of my red bar by 20 percent. Then he turned, glanced at me and left the room without saying a word.
Not even a Nice job! or Way to go!, I thought. Just a flick. His condescension aggravated me, but it also made me even more determined to sell another service plan.
Just before leaving for the day, Rhonda came over and reminded me about Halloween dress-up day, which was tomorrow.
“I’m coming as Elvira, the queen of darkness,” she said. “What are you going to be?”
“I guess I’ll come in with a white sheet over my head. I think I’ll be a ghost, because I’m dead to that guy.”
“Oh, don’t worry about Roy. He just wants to see his business succeed. He’ll be your best friend as soon as you sell a few more service plans.”
As it turned out, I didn’t need to sell any more pager service plans. Friday morning rolled around and shortly after arriving at the office and plugging in my headset, Roy strolled over to my desk and said hello for the first time that week. He was dressed in his usual business attire – white pinpoint oxford, dark slacks and a pair of long black shoes which reminded me of skis. In his right hand was his trademark paper coffee cup, which featured the picture of a Joker card. “Pretty realistic costume you’re wearing,” he said.
For the first time since leaving the service I had slipped on my old desert-tan camouflage utilities, which were soft and faded from the sun. When I had dressed that morning, Sheila had already left the house to go to work, so she had no way of knowing what I was wearing. I was thankful for this because I was determined not to give her any indication that I was still thinking about my past. I was moving on with my life, or trying to.
Still, had she known, she probably wouldn’t have said anything, anyway. Just as I was pouring myself into my work, trying to keep busy, Sheila was consumed with the idea of redecorating our bedroom, such that she spent all her free time perusing home-decorating stores and pouring over paint samples. We were preoccupied in very different ways.
Along with my camouflage utilities, I wore my service-issue desert boots and floppy-brim cover, which is what the military calls a hat. Though this uniform had once helped me blend into the Saudi Arabian landscape, it brought me some curious stares on my way to work that morning, and it seemed largely responsible for my boss’ sudden change of attitude.
“Well it’s all I had on such short notice.”
Looks like the real deal. Army soldier, huh?” he said, reaching out and pinching my sleeve. He rubbed the fabric between his thumb and forefinger, spinning it around as though skeptical of its authenticity. And then he asked me what everyone used to ask me in the months after I returned home from the war: “What was it like over there?”
He stood there sipping his coffee, his white neck looking constrained behind his starched collar. On his face was a kind of half grin, half incredulous look that seemed to say, Are you for real? or What are you doing here?
“Great place to get a tan,” I said.
“Yeah? So is Florida. You getting to know the Florida panhandle by now?”
The other sales reps were already into conversations with customers and I was ready to get to work. I wasn’t happy knowing I was seen as a liability, an expense, and I wanted to prove to these people that I could do my job.
“I’m getting to know it.”
“Good.” he said, his eyes appearing to look right through me, cold and lifeless. “Because you know what we do when we see too much red?”
Roy walked over to the dry-erase board and picked up an eraser. Then he placed the eraser up top, hovering over my name, and made a long slow motion down the board, as if he were removing my column. “We color it white,” he said, grinning. “You get my point, Soldier?”
I decided just then that Roy, starched and stiff, and with his detached, unfeeling eyes, reminded me of the company lieutenant who used to lecture us about getting our anthrax vaccinations. He used to tell us that the anthrax would disperse into the air through osmosis and kill those of us without the required two-stage vaccine. While telling us this, he would flip little white cardboard discs at us as say, “I’m anthrax and your dead.” He would repeat it to the next man, and the next, saying “You don’t have your shot? You’re dead too.” For a moment, I could see these little white discs in Roy’s eyes and I wanted to grab the stapler off my desk and fling it at him to get him to stop and go away.
Roy dropped the eraser back onto the table, turned and walked out of the office. On his way out I heard him say, “Good morning, Angela.”
I turned back to my desk and dialed the first number of the day.
At noon that day I left the office, got in my car and drove down the busy Dallas street to a sandwich shop. I had noticed that the other sales reps ate at their desks, and up to that point I had done the same. But it had been a long day already and I needed to get out of there, away from Roy and his dry-erase board.
I ordered a sandwich and a drink, then took a seat to wait on my food. When the man called my number, I walked up to the counter and took out my wallet.
“No, no,” said the silver-haired man, shaking his head. “Let me buy your lunch. It’s the least we can do for you soldiers.”
No kidding? Is he joking? Then I remembered what I was wearing, that this was Dallas, where people weren’t used to seeing servicemen.
“Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it.”
“I was in the Army,” he said. “Two tours in Vietnam. I’ve seen a little of what you’ve seen.”
“Two tours? Wow.”
“Yeah, then a career with the phone company, a wife and three kids. Now I’m retired and running a sandwich shop,” he said, wiping his hands on his apron. “I like to stay busy. What can I say?”
“That’s impressive, sir.”
“No need to call me sir. I was an enlisted man like you.”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
I took a seat and ate quickly so that I could get back to the office, hopeful that I might make a sale before the day ended. Two service plans during my first week wasn’t bad, I thought, and I figured Roy couldn’t balk at that, even if he wouldn’t deign to say something like, Hey, way to go! or Nice job!
After lunch, I drove back to work, pulled into the parking lot and got out of my car. Walking up to the office I passed a blue Corvette, parked sideways and taking up three spaces in the front parking row. What a cocky, disrespectful son of a bitch, I thought. I looked at the car, walked around to see if anyone was inside, and about this time I began to feel the first waves of heat rushing up my back, through my neck and into my head. People like me park in the rear of the lot and hoof it into the office because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But why? Why do we do the right thing only to have someone else cheat the system, cheat the honest players who are trying to earn a living?
The car was empty. I glanced around the lot but saw only the traffic zipping by out on the street. No one around. Then I looked up at the office in front of which the car was parked. The sign on the door said NGC, Inc. and something told me I would find the owner of the car inside. My heart was beating quickly now and I could feel blood surging through my neck and temples. The dry air was making my back itch and suddenly I could see nothing except for NGC, Inc.’s tinted glass door.
I walked in and a girl dressed in a pregnant nun costume looked up from her desk. She had electric-blue eyes.
“Whose car is this out here?” I asked. “It’s taking up three goddamned places right out front. I want to know who the hell owns it.” My stomach was turning flips now and my breathing was quick and shallow.
“That car belongs to our president.”
“Get his ass out here,” I said. I sensed that I was screwing up badly, and in my mind I kept telling that I was screwing up, that I needed to get out of here and get back to work. But I was committed now. There was no turning back.
The girl sat motionless for a couple of seconds, a blank expression on her face. Then she picked up the phone and dialed a number. Several moments passed in silence. I was steaming now and suddenly I couldn’t think of selling pager plans or my lunch hour or how what I was doing would reflect upon Roy and his business, two doors down. For some reason, however, I did think of the old man who had given me my lunch. I told myself I was doing this for him.
If this president, the owner of the blue Corvette, had appeared in the lobby just then, it would have been a disaster. In my mind I was picturing how his face would look when I grabbed his throat and squeezed, when I knocked his front teeth out of his mouth. Later, this would seem to me a trivial matter, but at the time I was primed to fight and I was ready to take on whoever was going to walk into the lobby and claim that car.
“He’s not answering his phone,” said the girl.
“Lucky for him,” I said. My heart was thudding in my chest and it was a chore to get my statement out without gasping for air. I had to take a deep breath and deliberately slow my speech in order to get my point across. In the service, they always taught us to maintain our composure and now I was straining to maintain mine. I knew I was screwing up, but I also felt that I was on the right side of this. Damn civilians, I told myself. They don’t understand the sacrifices we make for them. It’s up to us to keep them in line, call them out when they’re too flagrant with their freedom. They’re entitled, I guess, but we paid for it.
“You tell him that I am sick and tired of people like him acting like they’re better than everyone else. If I can park in the back of the lot, so can he. If every other employee who works in this strip mall can park way out there,” I said, waving my arm, “so can he.”
She was speechless, and the confounded look on her face told me she had never encountered someone like me. I turned and marched out of the office, flung the door open and was gone.
Walking down the sidewalk toward my office, past the nail salon, I took several deep breaths, feeling the blood surge through my neck, my head, my eyes. My sight was interrupted with black and white flashes and for a moment I wondered if I might faint.
I walked into Pagers Plus, removed my parka and cover, flung them on my desk. A girl with a thick, black wig, black eyeliner and a low-cut black dress walked by and winked. It took me a moment before I remembered that it was Rhonda. I took a seat and plugged into the phone system. God help anyone who was going to refuse a pager service plan now. But before making the first call, I decided to take 10 seconds and try and clear my mind, calm my breathing. I took the first deep breath when I heard a strange voice in the lobby.
At this point I removed my headset and placed it on the desk. Then I stood and pulled on my cover, fitting it snugly on my head, then put on my parka. I walked into the lobby.
“…some big guy in Army clothes,” said a short, middle-aged man dressed in a white Polo and khaki pants. When he saw me, he squinted his eyes, looking both agitated and confused. As I walked toward him, he stuck his arm out, pointed at me and began yelling.
“You’re the one…” he screamed. His voice was surprisingly high-pitched and it seemed to bounce off the lobby walls and puncture my ears. “You got a problem with me? I own those fucking spaces!”
I walked up to the man without hesitation, twisted my shoulders and waist to the right, and released this stored energy in a quick, fluid forward motion. I saw the look on his face change from confusion to fear, like clouds passing in front of the sun.
I busted him in the nose as hard as I could, not punching at his face, but trying to put my fist through it. He stumbled backward and tried to brace himself by grabbing the receptionist’s desk. But his hand only slid across the surface and he fell back into some chairs that were lined up against the wall.
Expecting him to stand up, I waited with clenched fists, ready to deliver a second blow. But already blood was trickling out his nose and onto his upper lip, and I could see the amazement and disbelief in his eyes, the look of shock.
“Oh my God,” said Grace, the receptionist.
Standing there, I felt no sense of victory or pride, no sense of satisfaction. Instead, a wave of disgust rushed through my body, feeling heavy and hot in my stomach. The smell of cheap coffee and paper and the dusty, artificial flowers atop Grace’s desk filled my head, burning my nose, throat and lungs. Pangs of dizziness shot through my head and for a moment I felt myself hovering in the air, looking down at this surreal situation I had caused. I hated myself because I realized that there was much more where this came from.
The man’s eyes were watery now and with his thumb he wiped away the blood forming on his upper lip. He was done, but somehow I knew that I had lost much more than he had. He could stand up and walk out of here, clean his face off and forget about today. He could tell himself that if only he were twenty years younger, he could have kicked my ass. He could chalk it all up to a bad day and forget about it.
But what was I going to do?
I removed the pager from my belt and placed it on Grace’s desk, beside the vase of dusty fake flowers. Then I turned and shoved open the front door, walked outside into the cool, dry October air. As the door was closing behind me, I could hear Grace saying, “It’s a great day at Pagers Plus. How can we help connect you today?”
Despite the heavy Dallas traffic, the drive home helped calm me. I drove in silence, with the windows up and the air conditioner turned off. It was a warm afternoon and though I should have been sweating, I was cool, even to the point of being chilled. Just before reaching my apartment, I turned in at a home-improvement store and went inside.
Forgetting that I was wearing my old uniform, oblivious to the people who were surely looking at me and wondering who I was, what I was doing, where I was going, I walked up and down the aisles until I came to the paint section. I stopped in front of the display of color samples and there in front of me were the beiges and browns that had so colored my world during the past year that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The lighter hues appeared at the top of the display, fading into the olives and browns and, at the very bottom, a row of black. I looked down at my sleeve and then back at the display. These color cards seemed to represent pieces of me, a puzzle of myself that I couldn’t fit together.
I moved down the aisle to the brighter colors, stopping in front of another cascade of shades that progressed from light to dark. They were all blue.
A moment later a man wearing an orange apron walked up next to me.
“Can I help you find something?”
“Looking for serenity,” I said.