By Jesse Blake McCann
Not many people can admit to themselves that everything wrong in their life is their fault. But if one is to lead a proactive life, this is the first step.
Victims do not recognize control. I used to stare at myself in the closet mirror and saw a skinny girl with bad acne and dead parents. I accepted I just had to live with this. And being a few years out of high school with no desire to go to college, I had also accepted the terrible job at a call center, confirming precious metal purchases after the men wearing business casual in the other room convinced customers that “physical gold and silver can add diversity to your portfolio.” Before I was hired, I didn’t know there was a business that sold gold, silver, and platinum coins, much less a market of people who still sought them. The pirates of the world didn’t go away, they just moved to the deep South, voted Republican, and are waiting for the paper economy to collapse.
It wasn’t until I needed to fly back to Georgia to bury my mother that I saved myself from my own boxed-in thinking. Waiting for my flight, I was browsing an airport bookstore and found one shelf dedicated to self-help books. Most of them left me wondering thoughts like why I should take financial advice from a man in a wizard outfit or why I would need a disaster guide that explained how to escape ridiculous disaster scenarios like surviving piranhas, but then my eyes became fixed on a book with a blue cover and bold lettering that read:
Living in Harmony with the Five Hard Facts of Life, by Bishop Underwood.
I read the first half on the plane ride, some in my hotel room, and finished it at the funeral wake. Though I found creating a lifestyle based on five bullet points to be cheesy and simplifying broad concepts, the information did shift my perception of how I could get what I wanted.
“I’ve noticed positive changes in your performance over the last few months,” my floor boss told me while we were next to the refreshment table at our summer office party. Our call center was decorated in an offensive mockery of a tropical paradise, created with plastic palm trees and ugly neon streamers. “You’ve been taking more calls than anyone on the floor and have one of the highest ratings on our phone surveys. Close to Wendy, in fact.”
“Thank you, Mr. Grant,” I said. I was using an ice pick on a frozen block to loosen up some cubes for my punch.
“This is a party; no need to talk like we’re on the clock, Cassie.”
“Ah, sorry… Jerry.”
“Much better,” he said, his pudgy face sculpting an imp grin, “So what’s your secret to success?”
“I’ve accepted I’m going to die someday.”
He stopped as he was about to take a drink from his rum and coke. “Pardon?”
“I read this book… and that was the first fact it said I needed to accept. We’re going to die one day and if you remember that, it helps put what’s important to us in the front of our minds, and we work harder toward what we want to do before we no longer can.”
“That’s somewhat… morbid. Ah, I don’t think I’ve expressed my condolences about your mother’s passing a few months back. Was she sick?” he said.
“No. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning,” I said, “The resident nurses were negligent and failed to realize she had a faulty heater.”
There was a long pause and Mr. Grant shuffled uncomfortably and then took a deep swig of his drink.
“You look great, by the way,” he said.
“It was just a process of finding the right facial cream and gym,” I said, then I smoothed out the front of my red floral patterned yellow dress and adjusted my brown jacket with my free hand, “And the right thing to wear.”
“Well it’s working for you. Though I don’t know why you’re wearing a jacket. It’s so warm in here.”
He paused to take another drink, his eyes squinting and studying me from behind the paper cup decorated with fish and sea waves, “I bet you didn’t know you could be this gorgeous if you just put in a little effort”
My grip tightened on the ice pick. “Thank you… Jerry.”
“So tell me, where do you see yourself in this company down the road?”
“Actually, I had a few ideas about how we might improve the call center. Do you have a moment to sit down and talk about it?”
A few minutes later, I was bent over his corner office desk, my hands placed on the large flat calendar on top of it, as he took me from behind. He panted and made strange whining noises that reminded me of a desperate dog. My dress was pushed up and I was slightly concerned it would be wrinkled for the rest of the day. I focused on the silver framed photo of his wife and child; Mrs. Grant was also overweight and had an ugly mole on her chin. I hoped she had gotten it removed since the picture was taken.
After that business, Grant was impressed with my organizational ideas. Once they were applied to our department, our performance numbers and overall customer satisfaction rating increased. Wendy still remained above me in ratings, perhaps performing even better after my restructuring. It took agreeing to oral sex for Grant to let her go.
On the day she was fired, the entire office could hear Wendy’s wet wails and screaming coming from behind Grant’s closed office door. Not long after, Wendy emerged with scarlet cheeks and eyes exhausted from crying. She shot me a look that was pregnant with disdain, a look I would see mirrored on the faces of many of my co-workers for months to come.
Another hard fact of life from the book: not everyone will like you. The lesson here is to not hate yourself because you have the boldness and intelligence to get what you want.
The extra hours I put in at the office and in hotels under Grant’s sweaty body resulted in him trusting me with more responsibilities and assignments. My fellow co-workers, who once ignored me, now just avoided me. I did not care if they hated me or thought I was the office slut, as long as they did their jobs and understood my ideas were working.
A few months later, a new team was being formed by the vice president of our company. He wanted to create a think tank that would brainstorm new and positive directions for the company to take. Given my work in the call center, I felt I had a good shot at being considered. I just needed a recommendation letter.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Cassie baby,” Grant said. My teeth clenched at the pet name as I sat across from him at his desk, “You’re doing so well here, and there’s so much more work to be done. We need you here. Now, do you want Italian tonight? I know a place over on Wade Street…”
“Jerry, please,” I said, “I need that recommendation letter from you. This is what I want. This is the direction I’m choosing to take my life.”
Grant leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful look on his face. He answered slowly, “I’m sorry, Cassie, but not everything is in your control. I can’t write you a letter if I don’t think it would be a good idea. Maybe someday…”
I offered an alternative persuasion. I pulled out my iPhone, pressed a few times on the touch screen, and brought up a video with a side table view of our latest intimate encounter at Best Western.
“What would your wife say?” My raspy voice came from the phone.
“Fuck my wife, fuck my wife, fuck my wife,” Grant’s voiced blurted rhythmically from the phone. I placed it back into my purse and informed him of the phone’s feature to upload recorded video directly to the Internet.
Grant’s face had gone cold. He stood up and placed his hands on the desk, looking at me with menace in his eyes.
“You listen to me, you smug little bitch…” he started.
“I was once bent over your desk, like you are now,” I said and heard the passive calmness in my voice, “Only now you’re the one getting screwed.”
“If you think…”
“I don’t think anything,” I said and stood up, “Please e-mail the letter directly to the VP.”
Before I reached the door to exit, I turned around and looked at his bloated face, now heavy with rage and concern.
“Bad things happen,” I said, “What defines us, however, is how much we let misfortune take advantage of us. I have a book you can borrow sometime that talks about this.” I turned away, pushed the door open, and then gently closed it behind me. Two days later, I got an interview and a job offer from the vice president.
The following Friday was my last day in the call center before my promotion. I decided to take a half day to reward myself. Grant didn’t object.
When I walked into my apartment, I moved over to my desk and picked up a pile of papers I had neatly stacked. The pages contained directions and a business listing. I spent several nights researching on the Internet before I found the type of place I was looking for.
I went through my closet and found a low cut red dress I bought the previous week for this occasion. I slipped it on along with a jean jacket and red high heels. I spent twenty minutes applying makeup and then I examined myself in the mirror. There was an attractive, slim girl with a clear face looking back. She studied me and I could see approval in her stare. She knew what she wanted and was patient and clever enough to get it. And it did not take a lover, a husband, a best friend, or a boss to get her where she wanted to be.
I grabbed my cars key, put a few items in my purse, and left my apartment.
It was a four hour drive to the location. I used the silent ride and the dull highways to plan out how to make a strong impression on the newly created think tank. I had a few ideas, and I made mental checklists of information I needed to research on Monday. Eventually I could not help but let my mind wander to tonight, and I felt my heart speed up in my chest.
“I deserve this,” I said, “I’ve worked hard… I’ve worked hard for this.”
Shortly after dusk, I walked into a bar called “Nineteen Pages”. There were stairs on the side of a tall building that led down the sidewalk. I would’ve missed the entrance, but an ugly neon sign indicated its location.
The bar looked like it had been set up in a large basement and it smelled like a mixture of cigarettes and old beer. The walls were brick and lined with pictures of celebrities I did not recognize. The high windows above just barely peeked out at street level.
I ordered a martini at the bar from a rough-looking older woman with an inflated chest, and then sat at a large red booth by myself. The crowd was thin for a Friday. There was an old man with a thick body smoking at the bar (I was not surprised this bar didn’t follow state laws). There was a woman in business dress talking to someone, but it was too dim at her corner booth to see with whom she was conversing. In the background, soft jazz music pumped from a dusty jukebox in the back of the room.
I crossed my legs and sipped my drink. On the wall behind my booth, there was a picture of an olive-skinned young man with a Middle Eastern name. A guitar hung loosely around his body and he smiled shyly at the photographer. I suppose he was attractive, but I wondered if he had accepted any hard facts of life, or if he just lived an empty existence behind fortune and fame.
Shortly after the fourth jazz song ended, the bar door swung open and a man entered. He was younger than the other bar patrons, still in his 20s, and on his slim frame he wore a loose button up blue shirt and nice jeans. His hair was a wild curly black and he had a slightly hooked nose. He paused at the doorway as he surveyed the bar with narrowed eyes and wrinkled brow, and turned to leave. But then our eyes met briefly as he was turning. He hesitated, and then almost tripped over himself as he stopped his departure halfway out the door to move back into the room. He composed himself, went up to the bar, and sat on a stool that was directly in front of my booth with his back toward me.
I watched the back of his head as he looked around the room and drank his beers. He would move his head to the side while he drank, and I suspected he was trying to look at me from the corner of his eye.
After 15 minutes and one and a half beers, he walked over to me. He had a fake poster child smile and gripped his beer with both hands like it was a floatation device in dangerous waters. I smelled his cologne before he reached my table.
“I think you got the wrong night,” he said, “Karaoke is on Tuesday.”
I looked up at him. “I don’t sing.”
“Oh,” he said, “I just thought… you looked dressed up, and karaoke seems like the only reason you’d be in a place like… my buddy says there’s this guy who dresses like Elvis, gets trashed, and sings. Really funny.”
I stared at him, and he started peeling the label off his beer.
“Anyway, enjoy your drink,” he said, and turned to leave.
“You seem overdressed for this bar, too,” I said.
“Huh?” He said and looked down, as if he forgot what he was wearing. “Oh, yeah. I actually came from another bar.” He gestured in a direction with his beer, “I was at a bachelor party for a friend.”
“It seems early for a bachelor party to end.”
“It didn’t end, I just left. The groom started drinking at noon and was obnoxious and loud by the time I arrived. The drinks were too expensive to get drunk enough to deal with it, so I decided to cruise around the area for a break and cheaper booze.”
“Did you come from a party too?” He said with a forced smiled.
“No, I’m here celebrating.”
“Oh, cool. What are you celebrating?”
“Ah. Congratulations. I guess you’re waiting for your co-workers.”
“No, it’s just me. I don’t get along with my co-workers.” I took a sip of my martini. The taste was horrible, and I felt my mouth pucker.
“Oh,” he said, “That’s too bad.”
“Some people are not going to like me. I’ve accepted that.”
“Well, that’s true. Can’t be dragged down by everyone who doesn’t have a high opinion of you. You’d go crazy just trying to please everyone.”
“I agree,” I said. There was a pause.
“So I guess you’d rather celebrate alone than be in the company of a h-handsome str-stranger,” he said and grinned awkwardly. Even though he stuttered at the end of this sentence and his approach to flirting was childish, I still preferred if he stayed. I shrugged at him and motioned toward the other side of the booth.
I introduced myself and he said his name was Daniel. Through small talk, I discovered he moved to the area about three years ago from Chicago.
“What brought you here?” I asked.
“I started going to a college nearby for medical technician training,” he said, “But it was pretty overwhelming, and I didn’t have the patience for it.”
“So you’re not doing anything with yourself,” I said.
Daniel laughed nervously, “That’s a harsh way to put it. I do have a day job. I take care of the white-collared work for a shipping company.”
“Ah,” I said, “And that’s what you’re going to do from now until…?”
“Well, not forever, of course,” he said. He shifted in his seat and started plucking at his beer label again. “Eventually I’ll get tired of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ll come crawling back to school, dying for the structure and enlightenment of a class room.”
He looked up from the table with a small smile, but when he saw my expression, he quickly shifted his gaze down at his drink.
There was a long pause. Daniel took a deep drink of his beer, and put one hand on the table as if he was trying to push himself away from this conversation.
Finally, I asked: “What workflow do you use for your shipping company?”
He laughed and the tenseness in his body language melted slightly. “‘Workflow.’ That’s a fancy word for my horrible attempts to tame piles and piles of invoices. Do you really want to know?”
He talked about his company and I would occasionally interrupt with questions. During this time, the busty bartender came over and took our drink order. Daniel ordered a shot of house rum and another beer. I asked for water. She squinted at me in annoyed confusion, but brought our order. Daniel took the shot of rum and then asked for another.
I was explaining to Daniel a better method to file warehouse orders when he began to chuckle.
“This is great bar talk. I can see why you got promoted,” he said. I noticed that once he was not trying so hard to impress bar women and was a few drinks deep, he eyes and smile had a playful look that might be considered charming.
Daniel took another deep drink and pulled out a small square package. He shook out a cigarette and pulled out a matchbook with a cheap logo of Nineteen Pages. He lit one of the red-headed sticks on the matchbook’s black strip with a careless flick of the wrist.
“I think it’s great they allow you to smoke in here. It must be the only bar in the…” He looked at me and stopped mid-sentence with the cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, do you mind?” He said.
“That’s a worthless habit,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, and quickly blew out the match and put everything in his pocket, “I should’ve asked you first.”
There was another moment of uncomfortable silence before I excused myself and went into the bathroom. It was empty and the dull fluorescent lights above lit the grimy floors and walls in a sickly white. I moved in front of a mirror covered in smudges, and then touched up my eyeliner and added another layer of lipstick. As I returned my makeup, I stopped and stared into my purse.
After a few moments, I broke my gaze and closed my eyes. I could see a rapid red pulse on the back of my eyelids from my heart beat, and I knew I needed to calm down before I left the bathroom.
I took a deep breath and recalled a paragraph in Living in Harmony that contained a prayer of sorts that was meant to bring down tension.
“If I can picture what I want, it will happen,” I recited out loud.
And so I did. I pictured the scene in as much vivid detail as my mind would create. The lighting. The mood.The words. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes and saw my reflection smiling calmly.
I left the bathroom and ordered a shot of rum at the bar. Daniel, who had been playing with his phone, quickly put it away and his posture slightly stiffened when I sat down.
“Here,”I said, “For the company.”
“Oh. Uh, thank you!” Daniel said. He brought the glass to his lips and then stopped. “Where’s your shot?”
I raised my water and clinked it to his shot glass. He laughed.
“Yeah, to future success at our jobs! May we kick ass,” he said, and quickly drank the rum in a swift tilt of the head. He exhaled loudly, wiped his mouth, and then took a deep drink of his beer.
“So I told you where I was from,” he said, “How about you? Did you grow up around here?”
“I moved here from Georgia with my mother when I was very young. So I have lived in this area for most of my life.”
“Mother and daughter against the world, huh? I bet you guys are close.”
“She’s dead now,” I said, “Carbon Monoxide poisoning from a leak in her room.”
“Oh,” Daniel said and looked down at his nearly empty beer, “Ah, sorry, didn’t mean to bring up the subject.”
“I don’t need an apology,” I said, “We were not close.”
“Ah. It’s never easy when you and your parents don’t get along. My old man and me…”
I cut him off. “I have accepted I can’t change what it was, or any other events I did not like in my past. It falls into an area of my life that is out of my control. But I can control how I deal with it now.”
He took his eyes off his drink to look at me. “That’s…. pretty good advice. Did you come up with that?”
“I read it somewhere.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry if I upset you.”
I pulled out my phone and glanced at the time. Somewhere in its digital memory was my bedside blackmail.
“You should be getting back to your party,” I said, “I need to be leaving as well.”
His face looked like he had been struck in the chest. “Ah, okay. Yeah, you’re probably right.”
I scooted along the booth to stand up.
“Do you…” he said, paused, and then cleared his throat, “Can I walk you to your car?”
A pleasant feeling crept up my spine and rested comfortably in the back of my head.
I nodded. “If you want to.”
It rained and stopped while I was inside the bar. The ground was wet and the air smelled like damp leaves. We walked along the sidewalk and passed storefronts and tall brick buildings as we avoided puddles.There was a slight chill in the air and I pulled my jacket closer. Daniel walked next to me with his hands in his pockets.
We didn’t talk much. Daniel made a few empty jokes about store names, but I had no response. I rubbed my arms and wished he had the social awareness and boldness to put his arm around a cold woman. Instead, he said, “You parked far away.”
“I do not trust this neighborhood,” I said, “I wanted to find a safe spot.”
“It’s not so bad here,” Daniel said, “It’s just old.”
A few minutes later, I turned down an alley in between two of the brick buildings. A dull orange light curved out from one of the walls above, making the area resemble a photograph developed with a bad filter. After walking for about 30 seconds, I turned a corner to a dead end with two parking spots: one empty and the other with my black Honda Accord. Daniel had kept up with me, but stopped at the corner.
This area had no light, and it was difficult to see until I opened my car door and the inside lights came on. I turned back toward Daniel and saw that his head outlined in orange light, making his curly hair looked even wilder. I saw he swayed slightly.
“Well, I guess this is your stop,” he said, “Thank you for the conversation, I’m glad tonight didn’t end in a complete bust.”
I placed my purse on the driver’s side and walked up to him.
“Congratulations again on your…” he started, then I leaned up into his face and kissed him. He was stiff at first, and his eyes were wide with surprise. But after a few deeper lip movements from me, he put his arms around my waist and joined my rhythm.
The kissing lasted for a few long moments, and then Daniel began to move his arms slowly around my back. I tasted a sweet beer and rum combination, along with a slight ashy taste of cigarettes. A pleasant tide was rising in me, a warm current that flowed from my stomach to my chest. I sighed. I knew I earned this moment.
I broke away and said in a husky whisper, “Let’s move into my car…”
Daniel stopped moving his hands around my body.
“Wow, I can’t believe I’m the one saying this, but we can take it a bit slower…”
I stopped his talking with another deep kiss and tasted the cheap liquor on his breath. I pulled him back toward my open driver side door. We made out as I walked backward. Once I was against my car, I stretched one arm toward my purse on the driver’s seat. Daniel took this opportunity to kiss my neck while I rubbed the back of his head with my free hand.
Daniel unzipped the front of my jacket, moved it over my shoulders, and started kissing down my arms. This inspired a deep moan in my throat. I admired the power of carnal desire and the focus it brings. There was no history and no future in moments like the one I shared with Daniel; just a mental landscape lit up with a feeling that crumbles guidelines, structure, and concerns.
Daniel’s kissing stopped abruptly.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “What happened to your arms?”
“My mother had an odd way to show her affection,” I said and used all my strength to bring the ice pick from my purse into the area in his neck I best judged was his jugular vein.
Blood splattered out to inform me I had guessed the right. I pulled it out and stabbed a few more times. I felt the sprays of a warm thick shower on my face and chest with each thrust until I could not see. I heard a gasp and a wet scream, and I was roughly shoved away.
My head hit the top of car and I briefly saw purple and green spots of blindness. I fell on the ground, losing a high heel in the process. I quickly wiped my eyes with my jacket sleeve and saw Daniel leaning against the alley wall and heaving.
He still had the ice pick in his neck and was holding the spot just below it. I watched the pick jiggle as Daniel breathed in rapidly. His hand crept up toward the handle.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said.
He yanked it out. A small stream of blood shot out and splattered on the pavement below him.
I used the open car door to pull myself to my feet. I was aware of a throb of pain from a deep headache, but it felt as important as a muffled scream.
“I used to be sad, Daniel,” I said, “I used to wonder why I felt so… detached from everyone.”
Daniel jerked up. He dropped the ice pick in his hand in favor of covering the gushing hole in his neck. He called a muffled and indistinguishable word that could’ve been “Help”, and I heard a gurgling.
“Bishop Underwood wrote that many people don’t help themselves because they don’t think they have control of their lives,” I said, “I felt this way. And even when mother died, the great elation was more terrifying than comforting.”
I felt the chill of the alley creeping in, but the cold was as far away as my headache. I left my jacket dangling over my shoulders, leaving the many jagged scars exposed.
“After reading Underwood’s book, it all came into focus,” I said, “I learned I did have control; I didn’t have to let others define me, and I should not excuse myself of responsibilities just because I had terrible things happen to me.”
Daniel lunged toward the corner that led away from the parking spots, but it only let loose another spray of blood from under his head. He lost his balance and fell. His arms didn’t move fast enough to brace him for the fall and his skull bounced off the pavement with a hollow crack.
“Like I said, I can’t change the past,” I walked toward him as I spoke, “But I can help myself now. And others. I realize now why I killed my mother.”
His head lay sideways on the concrete where a small pool of blood was forming. I saw small pink bubbles around the cut in his neck. His eyes were slow to respond to my presence when I approached, but eventually they drifted over to me.
I knelt next to him and said softly, “It’s because by releasing her, I helped her understand what was most important to her. She knew before she slipped away what really mattered, and finally found peace in her life.”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of the damp alley, and then continued.
“I wish I didn’t wait so long to save her from a life filled with regret and… damaged relationships. Without purpose or focus, people just exist to hurt and hurt others. I live in harmony with that fact now, and I know I can help others live in harmony with it too.”
I placed my head gently on Daniel’s back and felt the heat through his clothing, warmth that would be gone in the coming hours.
“Daniel,” I said in a quiet breath, “I only wish you would tell me what’s important in your life now that you know you’re at the end of it.”
I felt his back rise up as he tried to take a breath. Then it fell down and did not rise again.
I entered my apartment late the next morning. I took off my jacket and examined my dress. The dried blood left rose petal stains and there was dirt that caked the edge of my dress and my high heels. I made a mental note to bring pants and sneakers with me next time. I removed my dress and headed to the shower, eager to get rid of the burning smell of drain cleaner which accosted me on the ride home.
I spent a long time standing under the hot water. I felt streams enter the grooves of my scars before they would trickle off my arms. Periodically, I would close my eyes and face the nozzle for a pleasant hot tickling that would cause me to smile.
I dried off and put on soft white pajamas I ironed the night before. I was exhausted, and there was still work to be done. And then there would be more work for the next one.
I lay with my eyes open and staring at my side table. I spotted a book with a blue cover and bold lettering.
I sat up and picked up the book. I flipped through the pages, which moved easily due to the worn spine. I found the last chapter, and scanned the pages for the passage I was looking for. Eventually my eyes fell to something I had underlined while I was sitting in a Georgia funeral home almost six months ago:
Existence is a lot of work with little pay off. This is a difficult idea to acknowledge, but acceptance is the last step you need to take before you can live in harmony with the hard facts of life.