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Fiction

 

Lookout

 

Audrey Mapes

Nobody worries about wildfires in the winter. Molly exhales a cloud in the cold and squints up at the cabin on stilts. The lookout towers are never insulated—no need during fire season, way up there with no shade but what the roof provides—but that’s fine. She packed like she’d be camping, sleeping bag and thick socks, the kind meant to help with arthritis, and cold isn’t that bad, or it won’t be once it’s over with.

The stairs that wind around the stilts are sturdy, surprisingly. She’d expected them to creak. It’s probably a good thing they don’t, though, she supposes as she climbs. Molly reaches the top out of breath and pauses, huffing. Stares out across the expanse of bare trees dotted with evergreens below. The path she took to get here is barely visible, and only for a short ways from the tower. All the research she’d done had said cell service was spotty at best here; the buzzing in her back pocket says she is, unfortunately, lucky on that front. Last she was here that wasn’t information that had been relevant, if even available. She sucks in a breath, cold air stinging her teeth, and pushes open the door to the cabin.

Unpacking her backpack feels almost too natural after so long away. Sleeping bag and blanket on the narrow mattress. Hat on the hook by the light switch. Jacket over the back of the chair by the desk. Notebook on the desk. Clothes on top of the faded circular map in the middle of the cabin. She hesitates only momentarily before tossing her phone onto the desk.

The screen lights up briefly: three new messages. Amy. No service again. Molly turns away and sits on top of her sleeping bag to toe off her shoes, resolutely ignoring the screen as it goes dark again.

Amy can wait. Molly is here now, and Amy can wait.

It was spring and the prefix Ranger had just been added to her name. She was sitting at the desk in the tower—her tower; the notion was still a wonder—looking in the dim grey of the predawn light for the path she’d taken last night when the radio lit up. Molly snatched the headset from its spot and put it on. “Hello, Saddle Ridge,” sang out a voice, the sound jumping from ear to ear and making her scalp tingle. “You there? First day on the job, they tell me! Welcome to the park.”

Molly fiddled with the headset for a moment, eyes flicking across the sunrise out the windows. “Thank you…? Who is this?”

“You may have noticed we’re a little short-staffed here at the moment, so I’m your remote supervisor. If you turn your attention to your northeast window you can see my tower just barely. I’m waving, which you definitely can’t see.” Molly twisted to face the window and squinted. There was a silhouette that looked similar enough to her own tower, further up the mountain. “Name’s Dee. It’s kind of isolated out here, I know, but hey, the big bosses don’t bother us too much unless there’s a natural disaster of some kind, as long as you do your job. As you may have noticed, the radios aren’t exactly made for portability, so you’ll just have to check in with me whenever you’re back in your tower. Typically that’ll mean once in the morning and once in the evening. Sound good?”

“…yeah,” Molly said slowly. “So you’re here to tell me what to do?”

“Ha! Sure, I guess.”

“When do I get to go out?”

“In a minute, eager beaver, slow down. Damn you sound young. In my experience, nobody takes this job unless they’re running from something. So. The welcome question. What are you running from?”

Molly thought of the claustrophobia of people pressing in from all sides, watching, even when they weren’t, and grit her teeth. People with too many questions, she didn’t say, shifting her jaw. Trees didn’t ask questions. “What are you running from?” she bit off instead.

Dee broke into a laugh. “Oh, I like you! Alright, get out there and clear the footpaths. There’s supposed to still be some snow in patches, but the worst you’ll have to deal with will be the parts where it’s already melted, left mud puddles. Hope you’re excited to dirty up your boots on your first day. Check in with me when you get back for the night.” The radio clicked, and the light went off again.

Down the stairs, compass in her pocket and hat tilted back on her head until it would get lighter, off into the trees. This would be a chance to get to know the area just as much as it would be to… drag branches off the trails. She hadn’t expected this to be glamorous work—doing so would be laughable, really; nobody was ever in awe of foresters—but as she dumped another armful of branches off to the side of the path, she acknowledged that she might have let herself romanticize it, just a little bit.

The mud sucked at her boots, squelching, early morning sounds of birds waking up as the sun rose circling her head. Kicking at a smaller branch in the path, she tried to shake off the noise, focusing instead on the ground. Even leafless, the trees interlocked overhead to leave the sunlight that reached the forest floor and the muddy trails in mosaic. Like broken glass, she thought absently, and then stopped, spying the back of an information board. A map. She could use that to plan out the rest of her route, make sure she could cover as much ground as possible while still looping back.

Molly rounded the board, and instead of the map, her gaze landed on the poster just to the left. Missing. Did people always smile on missing persons posters? Missing since autumn. Someone could walk into a place like this and vanish.

The birds sounded louder, so much louder.

 

She doesn’t always feel her age, but mornings make it hard to ignore her own body. Molly takes a catalogue before opening her eyes. Neck: stiff. Probably slept on it funny. Shoulders: tense, but that’s nothing new. Back: achy as always. Hands: cold, knuckles swollen. She tucks her hands under her armpits and moves on. Hips: still working. Knees: always the worst, but they’ll do. Feet: been worse, been better.

One day, she thinks as she sits up slowly, the years will get too heavy for her to hold up. She’ll split at the seams, go tumbling like a puff of dust blown off the top of a fireplace. But not today.

She sits down at the desk hard enough to make the chair scoot back a smidge, taking a bite out of a granola bar and reaching for her phone. No service still. She doesn’t have to respond, just see what Amy has to say. Her fingertips hover over the dark screen.

Except she already knows what Amy has to say.

Molly flips the phone over and bites into the granola bar more aggressively than perhaps necessary. The light from the sunrise is flickering across the frozen branches stretching out as far as she can see through the windows, and the sharp, fractured reflections of sunlight hurt her eyes the longer she looks.

She stares anyway, until her eyes water and she chokes on a bite of granola, hacking and pounding her fist on the desk. The knobs of the desk drawers rattle in rhythm. When she can breathe again—or wheeze, at the least—she tilts her head back, gasping for breath as her eyes flit across the slats in the ceiling. Her chest hurts with the effort of breathing, hands shaking as she tries to steady herself, heart thudding an erratic, thin beat. She could count her ribs right now without running her hands over them, too aware of her bones.

Molly doesn’t always feel her age. It’s everyone else that changes, getting younger all around her, but her body doesn’t seem to know that’s how things are. Doesn’t fit right anymore. She slumps in the chair and wets her lips. Maybe that’s what age is supposed to be, coming loose from your body, getting ready to be untethered altogether.

 

Talking with Dee got easier with each passing season, each passing year. She asked fewer questions, answered when Molly asked some of her own, softened at the edges. Molly took to staying at the desk with her headset on when she got back at night, watching the stars and the trees and listening to Dee’s stories.

“You’re awful quiet tonight. Concentrating on the lack of fires out there or lost in thought?” Dee prodded.

Molly let out a breath, chin in one hand, fingers of the other tapping rhythmically at a knot of wood in the desk. “Just… thinking. We’ve put up two or three missing posters a year all five years I’ve been here. Is that normal? I know sometimes they have us go out searching, but do you think it does any good? How many get found?”

The radio was silent for so long Molly almost checked to see if she’d lost signal. Then Dee sighed, more tired than Molly had ever heard her. “The truth is a lot of the people on those flyers don’t get found, Moll. Nature gets to them before any of us ever can.” Then, gently but teasing, like she could lighten the conversation after something like that, “You want to be a hero, Molly? Is that what you’re worrying about?”

“No.” The dark blue of the night stared back at her through the windows behind her half-reflection from the dim light of the lantern on the floor. Translucent in the glass, the line of her jaw gilded by light stood out more if she let her eyes unfocus: orange patches against the blue. “But I… Maybe once, you know? I couldn’t do it more than once. But one person. I could help one person, I think, so then I’d remember them better than I could otherwise. I couldn’t do it every day—you’d start forgetting, forgetting the people you helped, and if you can’t remember then—I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like it really counts if you can’t remember it.”

“One person, eh? Huh.” Dee went quiet again. “You ever get… lonely, out here?”

She closed her eyes, the afterimage of her reflection seeping color-inversed across the backs of her eyelids. Molly was there because she’d wanted to be alone, to stop having to pretend she understood the complicated, unspoken rules of being a person in a web of other people. “Yeah,” she said anyway, because Dee was her friend and whatever her own feelings, not everyone sought out isolation as a remedy.

“Hey. Maybe—maybe I’m your one. I, uh… listen, I don’t really like talking about this, but I want you to know you’re a good person, Moll. I grew up in the system, foster kid, and hell if I don’t wish I had someone then who listened like you do now. Would’ve made all the difference.”

Molly couldn’t find a response. She opened her mouth, but she didn’t know what she could say that would be enough, or right, or consoling.

This was what she had wanted to escape, this social inadequacy.

Dee chuckled abruptly. “Sorry. Forget I said anything. The point is that you’re a good person, Molly. I hope you get to help your one, whenever you set out to.” There was an uncomfortable silence, just for a beat. “I’m getting off now. Radio if you spot a fire.”

“I will.” The night stayed blue on all sides. From the floor, her lantern flickered.

 

She knows she shouldn’t step off the trails, but with the carpet of soggy leaves on the ground, she won’t leave footprints, and no one is here to see even if she did. This is how missing person flyers get printed, she thinks as she checks her compass and takes the first step off the footpath. One step at a time. But she knows the shapes the trails make through the woods, and she has her compass to tell her when it’s time to turn back west, and she’ll only walk a straight line.

Just to see.

Winter is always the quietest season out here. Molly swears under her breath when the tremor in her hand makes her nearly lose her compass; she takes it from herself, wishes begrudgingly she had a hiking stick. Too late to carve one herself out of one of the fallen branches here like she always imagined. Better not to trust herself with a knife.

The leaves don’t crunch underfoot, just make quiet, wet-paper sounds. They’ll turn to mush as they rot, then to dirt, feed the trees they fell from. She wonders if the trees know. Overcast as it is, shadows are thin, and if she looks up the grey sky is criss-crossed by desaturated limbs of trees all reaching for each other. There were days, she remembers, when the light filtering through the leaves was made visible as it came down, bars of sunlight like she could have reached out and touched them. Today the sun is as tired as she is: all the light is dulled.

“At least one of us didn’t give up right away,” she mumbles. “If I got out of bed, so can you, old man.” The sun, predictably, does not respond.

There’s a rock not round enough to be the ideal of a boulder in her straight-line-path. She stops just in front of it, staring for a moment, sizing it up. Climbing used to be nothing, an exciting challenge. Maybe muscle memory can beat back the tremors, she thinks. She isn’t ready to turn back yet, and to go around it would be pointless. There is suddenly nothing she wants more in the world than to sit on top of this rock.

With a huff that dissipates into vapor, Molly sets her hands atop the flat of the rock, counting her breaths carefully, the fingers of her right hand trembling already. “Stop it. Stop it!” There’s no time for this hesitation—she shoves away thought and climbs.

Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

She doesn’t move for a while, head low, on her hands and knees on top of the rock, elbows one touch of a breeze from giving out. The rock is cold under her, still slightly damp from the morning fog. She isn’t sure what else she expected from it.

When her heart has stopped pounding, she moves slowly, shifts to sit with her legs over the other side. Looks down. Remembers, distantly, seeing loss of sense of smell on a list of symptoms.

The bright yellow feathers of the dead bird below sit scattered around it, crumpled and spiny.

Grosbeak, Molly thinks, half-grateful she can’t smell the death, half-bitter. What else has she missed?The tiny carcass is the brightest spot of color besides her own green hat, she thinks, in the whole forest right now. Cold seeps through the fabric of her jeans into her thighs, into her bones.

 

“We’ll keep you on the list,” the lady at the adoption agency had said with her permanent smile, “and call you if we find a match.” She tilted her head, armed with small talk. “How did you become a park ranger?”

“I applied, same as anyone else I suppose.” Molly drummed her fingers against her side, resisting the memory of Dee’s teasing laugh. Real interesting, Moll. “Where am I on the list? Do you have an estimate how long it’ll take to hear back?”

Flip flip. The pages in front of her meant nothing to Molly, but she looked back up with her eyebrows raised. “Six months at the earliest.”

Six months. What was six months now? Six months was nothing, she told herself. “You can’t move me up at all?” Molly asked anyway. “At all?” The desperation was leaking into her voice. She felt it brand her in the other woman’s mind: fifteen years waiting, tick tick tick. It hadn’t started out this way, but she needed this, and every time things fell through and they told her to keep waiting it felt like they were only delaying the final no. The longer they made her wait the less appealing a candidate she was, she imagined—mothers didn’t give their babies to middle-aged single women with rough hands and the smell of the outdoors clinging to their skin, they gave them to pretty young couples with money and opportunities piled up around them.

“No, I’m sorry.” Her smile was immobile. “We’ll call if we find a match for you.”

 

It snows the second day Molly is there in the lookout tower. She sits at the bottom of the stairs, hand outstretched in front of her, focusing on keeping it steady. “Don’t shake,” she whispers fiercely. “Don’t.” Snowflakes land in her hair, her eyelashes, in the palm of her hand and melt much more slowly than they should.

She can feel the weight of her phone up there on the desk, plugged into one of two outlets the tower has. Standing abruptly, she brushes her hands off on her thighs. It isn’t cold enough for the snow to stick; she can see the footpaths still. A walk. Just to clear her head. That would be nice. Yes: a walk, down to the creek and back. Not the same way as yesterday.

She circles around three times before the pressure in her throat lessens and she can pretend she doesn’t have any unread messages from Amy, doesn’t have anything hanging overhead. It works until her left knee gives out and she has to haul herself back up into the cabin. The cell service came back long enough to update: five unread messages.

Molly sits at the top of the stairs instead and holds out her hand, elbow straight, palm up, and counts to five on her fingers, moving each one like pressing piano keys. “Don’t shake,” she commands her hand.

She sounds too small. Too big for her body, too big for her voice.

Time to sit somewhere else.

 

They told her what to expect, sort of—ten years old, very quiet—but nothing had really registered until they brought the little girl in. She stood there, watching the adults in the room with large, serious eyes, and Molly dropped to her knees.

“Hello,” she said softly. “Hello.”

“This is Amy,” one of the social workers told her, nudging the little girl forward. “Amy, this is Molly.”

Something slotted into place, and Molly held her hands in her lap, very still. “Amy,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Amy clutched fistfuls of her skirt. “Well, I’m here now,” she said, so serious, such a serious voice in such a little round face, and Molly laughed.

They kept trying to tell her older children were often more difficult, but she knew. She had felt it when they introduced them. “Yes,” she said, “yes, I want her, please.” She signed the papers. Amy came home with her, and the first thing Molly asked her was her birthday.

“It’s in June,” Amy said, looking out the window of the car. “June eleventh.” She was quiet for a moment, then turned to look at Molly. “Did you mean it, that you’d been waiting on me?”

She found she couldn’t speak, her throat closed up, so she nodded instead.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, then.” The little girl tapped her feet together thoughtfully. “I must have fulfilled my quest then if you’ve found me.”

Molly could manage one word without crying, she thought. “Yes.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

Grey-mittened and green-hatted, Molly makes her way through the snowfall back down the trails to the creek. It’s beginning to freeze over. She sits on a rotting log, stares out across the skinny little body of water. With the water blocked off by patchy ice, it doesn’t move the same; it looks almost filmy, bubbles getting caught and solidified. It’s low enough this time of year that she’d have to skid a good few feet down the muddy bank to touch it, if she wanted to. She wraps her arms around herself instead and rests her elbows on her knees, gritting her teeth at the reminder that she’s all bones now.

It’s not really impressive after all. The creek is just a creek, freezing over with the season, but continuing on. Dee had talked about it so much—how she’d keep a bottle or two in a dip in the mud she hollowed out herself so they’d stay cold, how great it was to just come down here and sit and think for a while, all of it—Molly had thought there would be some feeling of specialness to it. She wonders halfheartedly if she could find Dee’s bottle-storing spot if she looked, if the years and the creek will have smoothed it over again.

As long as she doesn’t look, she can believe it’s there.

Everything is just what it is. The lookout tower is just a tower. The creek is just a creek. It should be more, she thinks dully, the sounds of the creek swirling past her ears.

 

Amy was the sweetest, smartest, best little girl in the world. She was always asking questions, telling stories, trying to help anyone and everyone. Molly loved her, loved the way she took everything so seriously, loved the way she laughed. She wanted to give her the world.

That wasn’t quite feasible, though, so she settled for the reassignment to an indoors job at the park, running forms, shuffling papers as the pile on her desk somehow stayed the same height no matter what she did. It gave her more regular hours, and she came home every night to listen to Amy’s stories.

She was fourteen when she sat by Molly on the couch and asked out of the blue, “Molly, do you have any friends at the park? You let my friends come over, but you never have anyone come visit you.”

Surprised, Molly looked back at her. She seemed just as serious about this as anything else, eyebrows drawn together in concern. “I… used to. It’s alright though,” she smiled, “I have you.”

“I don’t count,” Amy said. “I’m not a grownup, and you should have more than one friend anyway. Why did you ‘used to’? What happened to them?”

“Her.” Molly turned her head, eyes fixing somewhere both on the wall and past it. It was Amy asking: she couldn’t be anything but honest. “Her name was Dee. She was a forester—a ranger, I mean, like me. Older than me. She died.” She lifted her shoulders. “It’s alright, really, Amy.”

“How did you meet?”

The question was innocuous, to be expected even, alongside what was she like? Molly thought of radio headsets, of sitting up late watching stars and wishing in whispers from miles away. She thought of an obituary, three lines long, with no photograph, and the service she couldn’t bring herself to go to because it would make it all real, to only ever see her one friend in death.

“We never really did,” she said at last.

 

The third day is colder than the first two. Molly wishes she had brought gloves instead of mittens and paces around the map table, the sleeves of her jacket pulled low over her hands. She jumps when her phone vibrates on the desk, swearing under her breath and stomping over to yank it from the plug.

 

Eight unread messages from Amy.

She stands, frozen, for too long. Something dull and heavy settles painfully in the back of her neck, the tops of her shoulders, until she sits on top of her sleeping bag. Rips off her mittens.

Unlocks the phone.

It won’t be that bad. You know I’d never send you somewhere I didn’t trust.

Molly. Don’t be mad at me, please, I promise it won’t be like that.

Molly?

Where are you? I’m at the house and no one’s answering the door. Are you okay?

I came in and you’re not here. Molly where are you??

Please answer me, I’m worried

Where are you?

Mama, please come back

The screen blurs. The phone clatters across the wooden floor.

Her shoulders shake as Molly digs the heels of her hands into her burning eyes, teeth bared, sharp silence filling the gaps between pathetic, hiccupping inhales.

Her body doesn’t fit right, and one day it will crack open at all her aching joints and pour her out, and that will be it. She understands, she does; Amy is middle-aged herself, has other worries than the failing of Molly’s body. Let it be someone else’s worry.

 

“Your handwriting is getting worse.” Amy said it without malice, but Molly’s shoulders tensed all the same.

“I’m old, everything is getting worse.” She didn’t turn around, left hand clenched in a fist on the table beside the bowl. The soup was getting cold.

Behind her there came the sound of paper fluttering, and Amy cleared her throat. “It would be a good idea to sign the consent forms now, ahead of time, then…?”

The spoon wouldn’t stay steady. “It’s Parkinson’s, Amy, not Alzheimer’s. No matter what I’ll still be here.” Still going to want, and think, and understand what was happening, to resent the version of herself that had signed over her autonomy. No, she wouldn’t do it.

“I know you think you can take care of yourself but please, Molly, you’ve been trying to eat the same bowl of soup since I got here an hour ago, and your grocery list is even less legible than it normally is. Please,” she said, “just tell me you’ll think about it.”

“Facilities are expensive,” Molly responded stubbornly. “I don’t want to rely on someone to feed me, bathe me, brush my teeth, all that—they’re putting me on that medication, it’ll help. And the rest I can get through.”

“Molly, please.” Amy sat beside her, brow knit. “Think about it. For me.”

The spoon clattered back into the bowl, splashing some of the cold soup out across the table. Molly looked back at her, white-knuckled and clutching at the table, and said with a great deal of effort, “I—I don’t want you to have to do anything for me, Amy.”

“I know. But you can’t think that I’ll be able to sit by seeing you in need of help and not do anything. If you won’t let me help you, then you have to let someone else.” She tried to smile. “I don’t expect you to make a decision right now. I’ll send you some links when I get back home, okay?”

She did. Molly looked through them that night with dread pulling at all her joints. The feeling only grew with each assisted-living facility she read about. Organized group activities. Twenty-four hour monitoring. She sent a shaky text to Amy as the need to get out overwhelmed her.

These are prisons.

 

On the fourth day the sky is blue, blue, blue. Crystal clear, clear as the frost on the windows of the cabin. Molly folds her hands over her stomach and watches the small black shape of some winter bird. She should have brought a pillow; sleeping without one has only made the stiffness in her neck worse these last few nights. The bird swoops out of sight, but her eyes linger where it disappeared.

She imagines it too old to fly. Some younger creature takes pity on it, helps it back to a nest, but how can it tolerate never leaving again?

“You’re no bird, Molly,” she mumbles. It’s the fourth day and she isn’t meant to be here anyway. She gets up, moving slow, bones creaky like closing doors. Packs her backpack again. Clothes. Notebook. Sleeping bag and blanket. Jacket. Hat.

She leaves the lookout tower just the way she found it, though she’s come to realize as long as nothing is overtly wrong, most people don’t notice the little differences. The truck is a half mile away—it’ll take her an hour, give or take, with her knees, but that’s all. What’s an hour? Nothing at all.

By the time she’s back where the cell service isn’t spotty she’ll have more than enough to say to Amy, have to card through her thoughts and separate out what’s meant to carry on the conversation from the self-pity. For now, though, she’s only focused on her breathing, and the way her ill-fitting body remembers the footpath through the trees.

A Better Place to Be

Michael West

“Are you looking for someone?”

Charlie turned his head back to see the bartender standing in front of him.  “Huh?”  He glanced back at the door and understood why she asked.  “Oh.  Uh, no.  No.”  He looked down at the glass in his hand.  “Can I get another scotch?”

 

Charlie sat at the bar, slumped slightly forward, clutching the glass with three fingers and his thumb, though the glass was resting on the glossy polyurethane surface of the bar.  No one would mistake Charlie for being a handsome man, but neither was he homely.  His eyes looked perpetually tired, deep creases carved into his face.  His suit was at the high end of moderately priced.  After the day’s wear, it looked neither freshly pressed nor particularly wrinkled; it just looked, like him, a little weary. His tie was loosened and his shirt collar unbuttoned.

 

The door opened again and Charlie snapped his attention to it with a mix of anxiety and expectation, both of which were quickly dashed by the sight of an unknown man.  

 

The bartender set the scotch in front of him. “You know, I see a lot of people here.  I might be able to help you if you’re trying to find someone.”  As Charlie subtly shook his head and looked down at the fresh drink, she added, “You know, bartenders are good listeners, and we get to know a lot of people.”

 

“Nah, that’s alright.  Thanks, though.”  His eyes lost their outward focus, and the bartender retreated to help the man who had just entered.

The next morning, Charlie stopped by John Dalton’s office as he entered the plant.  John was the Operations Manager at Lynnco Plastics, which had hired Charlie’s consulting firm to help improve the plant’s operating performance.  Corporate management at Lynnco’s headquarters determined that if Charlie’s team couldn’t increase the plant’s operating profit by 20%, they would close the plant and offshore the production to China.  No one at the plant knew the goal, or the consequences, of the project, although the plant management team knew they were under a microscope.  The rest of the 218 employees sensed something was amiss; otherwise, why would there be a team of consultants stalking them, checking their watches and recording every move in their little notebooks.

 

“Hey, John.  Did you get that production run data we talked about?”

 

John looked up and smiled at seeing Charlie.  “Yeah, I already dropped it by the conference room – I gave it to Sam.”  John’s brow furrowed in concern.  “You doin’ okay?  You look really tired.”

 

“Huh?  Oh, yeah, I just stayed up a little late’s all.”

 

“I don’t see how you guys do it – on the road away from home all week.  Hotel rooms.  Chain restaurant food.  I couldn’t take it, being away from my wife and kids like that.”

 

“Yeah, it takes a toll.”  Charlie was divorced.  His son – at 14 – seemed to have become more of a stranger during the two weeks between Charlie’s weekends, like some relative you only see at funerals and family reunions, and his friends – many of them “couples friends” – had devolved into mere acquaintances.  His apartment could be a motel room, no more than he used it.

 

“Well, you’re welcome to come to the house for a home-cooked meal sometime.  Sarah makes a pretty mean lasagna.”

 

“Thanks, John.  Maybe sometime.”  Charlie gazed at the picture of John’s family, then twisted his mouth a little and explained that he needed to review the production data.  As he walked down the hall, he realized that he liked John.  But he also understood that, in his role, he should never get involved with the “client,” and having dinner with John and his family would unequivocally be “involved.”

 

As a consequence of these projects, it was almost a given that people would lose their jobs.  Officially called a “Reduction in Force” – RIF for short – the reality was that people got fired.  They lost their income, their means of support; they lost cars and houses if they couldn’t find work.  They lost a sense of self, as so many people identified with their jobs.  As time went on, they would become disillusioned, scared, and angry.

 

Charlie didn’t care to see people lose their jobs, but he was hired to help companies achieve their financial goals.  As justification, he reasoned that if management had been doing its job, their workforce wouldn’t have become bloated and their operating procedures would have remained focused on efficiencies.  And in Lynnco’s case, the alternative was to RIF everyone and send the jobs overseas.

 

Charlie didn’t want to feel their pain on any sort of personal level.  He genuinely liked John, and the chance to have a family-style meal appealed to him since it had been four years since his own family life became a casualty of his work life.  But he reminded himself:  no fraternizing.

 

For the remainder of the week, Charlie worked with his staff compiling production data and comparing it to the actual patterns they observed in the plant.  He felt that they were making good progress, so he scheduled an update meeting with corporate management for the following Friday.

 

It was not Charlie’s weekend to have his son, but he always tried to have more contact than a simple phone call.  He knew Jonathan played soccer on Saturday, so he called to ask him about grabbing a pizza after the game. 

“I dunno, Dad, Mom ‘n’ Jerry talked about goin’ to Dave & Buster’s.  Wan’ me to see if you can come?” 

Jerry was Charlie’s ex-wife’s boyfriend – and Charlie was not interested in that humiliation.  He decided to spend some quality time with a bottle of Chivas instead, and told Jonathan he would see him the next weekend.

Given his business success, his ability to lead and develop people, he mused over the contrast with his personal life.  His ex-wife said his obsession with work had sheared the threads of their relationship.  He didn’t understand his 14-year-old son – his social media that seemed to change every weekend they spent together, his video games, and the horrible pounding rant he called music.  Charlie wondered what he was missing.

 

“Hey, Charlie, how was your weekend?”  John asked on Monday.

 

“Pretty much the same as usual.  How about you?”

 

“Ah, it was fun.  The kids had soccer games, then several of the parents had pizza delivered to the park and we had an impromptu post-game party.  Then after church on Sunday I went to the game with some of my old buddies from high school.”

 

“Wow!  It sounds like you had quite the weekend.”

 

“Yeah, you know how it goes when you have kids.”

“Yeah.”  Charlie understood the concept, but lacked the full experience.  He looked down the long hallway.  “I’d better go.  Sam’s waiting for me to go over some data.”

Sam and Charlie spent most of the morning reviewing the data and conclusions regarding the workflow. Charlie quickly identified the constraining factors, the elimination of which would yield almost half of the cost-reduction goal. Additional savings in production costs would come through improvements in quality.

 

Additional savings in production costs would come through improvements in quality.  In direct observations, Charlie’s staff reported excessive rejects, and quality reports supported those observations.  The staff reported a general lack of production procedures that could be corrected through training, but they also described an apparent lack of concern among production personnel.

 

Charlie considered the ramifications.  This was John’s area of responsibility as Operations Manager.  Charlie knew that implementing solutions to achieve the total goal would result in RIFs; now he was concerned that John might be fired.  He imagined John going home one evening, the aroma of lasagna filling the air, kids playing in the living room and then rushing to greet Daddy when they saw him,  all the while John trying to figure out how to tell his wife that he’d been “Trumped” – that he got fired.

 

When Charlie took a seat at the bar, the bartender walked up and set a small square napkin and a scotch in front of him.  Charlie looked at her, and she replied to the unasked question. “You seem like a creature of habit, so I didn’t think you’d be switching from what you were drinking last week.”

“Hmm.  I guess I am.  I might fool you next time and order a beer.”  The right corner of his mouth turned up into a half smile, and if you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed the fleeting glint in his eyes.

“No you won’t.  I’ll bring you another scotch when I see you’re ready.”  She smiled and started to turn away.

For the first time, Charlie paid attention to her name tag.  “Thanks, Cheri.”

She turned back.  “You’re welcome, Charles.”  Again, Charlie looked at her.  “Name on the credit card,” she said.

He nodded.  “It’s Charlie.”  

Cheri smiled and walked away.  She had a confident stride that was earned, Charlie imagined, by the nature of her work and her age, which he guessed to be around forty.  She wore a country-style plaid shirt and jeans, faded and maybe fitting a little tighter now than when she bought them a few years earlier.  Her eyes were dark and kind.

When the door opened Charlie again turned to it with anxious anticipation.

Cheri delivered another scotch and stood looking at him. “Look, Charlie, it’s slow tonight and if you don’t talk to me, I’m going to have to clean everything three times!”  

Charlie’s expression softened; he raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders.  

“Good,” she said.  “Tell me about yourself.”

“Well, I’m from out of town and here on business.”

“Damn, I’ll bet you’re the life of the party.”  She tilted her head slightly to the side.  “Okay, let me guess – you’re one of the consultants working at the Lynnco plant.  And since you seem weighed down, I’ll bet you’re the boss.”

“Guilty, but I need to say that I can’t discuss the project.”  Charlie knew that in small towns like this, word about work like his usually circulated fast as people in the community attempted to determine what was happening at the plant.

“Okay, so why do you keep turning around when the door opens?  Is it because you’re worried one of the guys from the plant’s going to get you?”

“No, if I were concerned about my safety, I wouldn’t be sitting in a bar.”

A man at the other end of the bar motioned to Cheri with his beer bottle.  “When I get back from getting him another beer, I want to hear why, then.”

When she returned, Charlie remained quiet,  a large clock above the bar ticking methodically. Cheri waited patiently, and finally he spoke. “Okay, the first week I was here for the project, I met a woman here, in the bar.  It seemed odd to me that such an attractive woman would be alone, and apparently not waiting for anyone.  I haven’t even dated since I got divorced, and besides, she was way out of my league.”  He took a drink of his scotch.  “Somehow, though, we started talking, and then ended up back in my motel room.”  Cheri raised an eyebrow, and Charlie dropped his gaze to his glass.  “It was funny – I don’t even know how we got to that point.  But before we left, I remember her saying something that stuck with me.  I don’t remember her exact words, but it reminded me of a lyric from an old song:  ‘I know I’m going nowhere, so anywhere’s a better place to be.’”

“So she’s who you keep looking for?”

“Yeah.  She left before dawn.  I came out of the bathroom and she was gone.  I guess . . . I don’t know what I guess.”  He felt an emptiness in his chest.

“Well, she was probably one of the out-of-towners, just here for the night.  I see others, but it’s usually not the women looking for a little extra.”  Cheri sounded like an indifferent bartender simply explaining life, and Charlie’s face reflected solemn acceptance.  “Let me settle that guy’s tab,” she said.  “Then you can tell me about yourself.”

They talked until well after midnight, with occasional interruptions when Cheri needed to wait on someone.  Charlie told her about aspects of his job:  flying out Sunday night or Monday morning to a project, then flying home Friday evening; that he’d been on dozens of projects spread throughout North America; and about some of his travel experiences, like the project in West Texas where the land was so flat that he described it as being able to see 200 miles in any direction while lying face down in the dirt.  He said he wasn’t “in the middle of nowhere,” but he could see it from there.

 

Cheri told him that she was a full-time teacher – fourth grade – and usually only worked on weekends at the bar for extra money to get by on.  She was working weeknights lately  filling in for a bartender on vacation, but he would be returning soon.

They talked about their children. Charlie described the difficulties he was having as a part-time, mostly absentee father, relating to his son.  He stared into his glass as he admitted that his son seemed to have developed a stronger relationship with his ex-wife’s boyfriend than with him.  Cheri parried with the challenges of being a single mother of two, just trying to make ends meet.

 

She explained that her ex-husband – who worked at Lynnco – was a decent guy, but that his biggest contribution was that he took the kids most of the time when she worked on weekends.  And because of this, he seemed to think he was “not quite as obligated” to pay child support as described in the divorce settlement.  This softened Charlie, and he began to open up about his failed marriage, how he and his wife had grown apart during his weeklong absences, how she had developed interests of her own that didn’t really include him.

Charlie decided to visit informally with John to assess the overall climate in the plant, now that his team had been there nearly four weeks.  As Charlie maneuvered through various aspects of plant operations, it became clearer that John did not understand the magnitude of their problems.  Clients’ common refrain was we’ve always done it this way.  John had become too complacent with this mindset; he never evaluated their performance – only reported it – and he never challenged the status quo.  Charlie questioned whether John was capable of implementing the changes that were coming.  This troubled Charlie:  he liked John and it was making this personal.  No fraternization.  Charlie adopted an attitude of indifference, and a matter-of-fact tone, as a means of distancing himself from John, but he couldn’t undo what was already done.

 

Cheri greeted Charlie at the bar with a smile and a glass.  He could tell instantly that it was not scotch:  “What’s this?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking ever since our conversation last night, and I hope you’re not upset, but I think you’d be better off if you stopped spending every evening in a bar drinking.”

He looked into her sincere, hopeful eyes.  He also had thought a lot about their conversation.  He focused on the glass as he considered her conclusion.  It had taken courage for her to say this.  It would have been much easier to stick to their routine.   He looked up and saw the hopefulness in her eyes slowly fading.  He raised the glass to her, said “Cheers,” and took his first drink of the 7up.  She smiled.  He smiled.

It was busier so they didn’t have as many opportunities to talk.  When Cheri brought his third 7up, she said, “Look, I told you the regular bartender’s back next week so I won’t be working.  Would you like to come over for dinner?”  Charlie was dumbfounded.  “Think about it,” she said.  “And I’ll be back in a few minutes.”  

Charlie felt like he’d just driven over a small mound at a high speed the way his stomach seemed to rise.  He tingled.  He’d never done this before – going to a local’s house for dinner while he was on a project.  He smiled.  Then he remembered John’s invitation to come over for lasagna.  He envisioned John trudging home to tell his wife.  He remembered that Cheri’s ex-husband worked at the plant, and that he already was inconsistent with child support.

He gazed at the image in the mirror behind the bar.  He saw a tired man.  A man who appeared older than his age would suggest. He saw loneliness staring back at him.  He saw Cheri move into his line of sight.

“Well, what about dinner?  My mom said she could watch the kids for a couple of hours.”  

Charlie slowly shook his head.  “But you know I don’t live here.”

Her brow furrowed. “Oh, don’t get any ideas.  The tour of my house will not include my bedroom, and I do not intend to visit your motel.”

“But my time on this project will be ending in a few weeks.  I won’t be around after that.”

“You know, I’m just inviting you for a home-cooked meal.”  

Charlie paused.  He again envisioned John’s long walk into the house after being fired.  He wondered if he could help John prepare for the changes.  He wondered what he might learn by example from John’s family life. Then he looked up at Cheri.  He breathed in the aroma of a warm kitchen, a freshly prepared dinner.  He thought of relationships lost and new relationships started.  In a place deep inside his chest was a flutter, a vibration of anticipation.  He gazed hopefully into Cheri’s dark eyes and said, “Yes.  I would love that.”