Chapter 2: Mr. and Mrs. Franklin

Chapter 1: Mayhem

Matt Franklin white knuckled the steering wheel and pursed his lips into the rearview mirror. The garage door was a turd and if it took any longer to open, he was going to asphyxiate on a carbon monoxide and rage cocktail. At the three-quarter mark he slammed the car into reverse and nailed the pedal to the floor.

The crunch of freshly mangled toys was Matt’s single source of guaranteed daily joy. Three years earlier, he’d made it clear to wife, kids, and dog, that he was done with the driveway shuffle. Whatever stayed in the driveway, died in the driveway, including the dog.

Reed Hunter of the Beaver-Hunters was a perfectly decent human being except for his politics. If Mr. Hunter kept his politics to himself, Laura might not have a night in County sleeping it off in an orange jumpsuit which was not a problem for Matt; he got three weeks of girl-on-girl fantasy out of the deal and if he’d kept his mouth shut, he might have eked out another three.

At the bottom of the driveway, Matt stood on the brakes, adding a new layer of rubber to his collection. He intentionally left an hour early to avoid the man who materialized at the bottom of the shared driveway. This morning he was wearing a pair of ducky pants, an orange bathrobe, and a death wish.

Matt slammed the wheel to the right and backed up over the curb onto his wife’s azaleas. He slammed the wheel to the left, straightened the car, and accidentally hit the gas. This time he stood on the brake with both feet and imagined himself in his own orange jumpsuit, accessorized with a think smear of red lipstick. The car jerked to a stop six inches in front of the ducky pants.

A thirty-two-ounce travel mug with a stripped lid launched itself from between his legs. It bounced off the top of the steering wheel and rotated one hundred and eighty degrees with the velocity of a doped horse on race day. Having saturated Matt from chin to belt, the cup completed its rotation and discharged the remaining fuel on final descent.

Matt screamed. Mr. Hunter screamed. Matt clawed at the seatbelt, slammed his shoulder into the door, and launched himself onto the pavement. The left side of his head left a small dent in the asphalt. He pushed up onto his hands and knees and howled. Hunter, pajama clad knees still six inches off Matt’s bumper continued to scream.

“MURDERER! ELITIST PIECE OF SHIT! VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTERER! YOU ARE EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PLANET!”

Matt stopped screaming and assumed an inverted manspread position. “Mr. Hunter? MR. HUNTER! Mr. Hunter, please, Shut. Up.”

Mr. Hunter looked around and noticed the neighborhood quorum moving in for the kill. He lowered his voice and spit back in Matt’s direction, “Franklin, if you don’t get your head out of your ass, you’re going to end up in Cranston on the wrong side of the bars.”

Matt plucked his dignity from a bald patch on the lawn and addressed his neighbor with the voice cultivated specifically for Law Enforcement, Senior Management, and his wife.

“Mr. Hunter, I don’t know what I’ve done to provoke your outrage and I am truly sorry about the unseemly act of vandalism on my wife’s part, but the woman apologized! What is it you want?”

“Your head mounted over my fireplace.”

“Mr. Hunter, isn’t that going a little far? Assuming you did get my head mounted over your fireplace, wouldn’t the rest of my body present a problem?”

Matt staggered to his feet and duck walked back to the car. He slid behind the wheel into a puddle of lukewarm coffee and pulled sedately into the right lane. Nodding at the assembled quorum, he exited the neighborhood a notch or two below the speed limit.

If Mr. Hunter could look at him and not see his wife, he might be able to get past the ducky pants, the orange bathrobe, and Hunter’s political affiliation. If Mr. Hunter could consider the possibility that his wife had periodic bouts of rational behavior, he might be a little more forgiving of her faults. And if Laura could look at Mr. Hunter and… fuck that. Never gonna happen.

He thought about those insipid blue billboards: ‘Be the person your dog thinks you should be’. What the hell does that even mean and who paid for that shit? They’d been at every major city intersection and highway overpass for at least four years and then one day, they vanished. Maybe the dog gave up.

During the first reasonable gap between meetings, Matt ran out to pick up a new shirt and drop his jacket at the cleaners. The front of his shirt felt like damp cardboard, his belly was waterlogged, and he smelled like he’d been marinating in a vat of espresso.

He pulled into the mall garage and raced up the spiral ramp, another guaranteed source of joy. Matt utilized both sides of the ramp with impunity, at least two tires squealing well over the yellow line at all times. The roof was the only place he’d park. Roller coaster ride in and out, plenty of spaces, and a limited number of jackholes in oversized SUVs.

To the right of the mall entrance, was the ghost of a blue rectangle with smudged grey text. Matt thought of dogs.

Later, he pulled a pale blue business card from under the driver’s side wiper. It was an advertisement for a new type of lens with a complementary initial exam. Matt liked free anything, and he was a year overdue anyway. He made an appointment as soon as he got back to his desk. He was still thinking of dogs. Matt hated dogs.

*

The address on the business card was 220 North Avenue West, ostensibly on the West side of North Avenue. North Avenue was a one-way street in a financially dubious industrial zone.  There was a corner market and a Remington Plant, still mostly operational. Of the five or six warehouses standing, only one had a functional loading bay; the rest were a mess of concertina wire, shattered glass, and weathered graffiti. North Avenue ran about a mile: a one-way connector between the edge of the city’s financial district and the Affordable Housing Projects.

The first street number was 1002, an abandoned three-story Victorian with broken windows and a good size hole where the front door might have been. Remington was about a quarter mile from the Victorian; 2106. If there was a 220, it was hiding back at the intersection of North and Wilson.

Matt put the car in drive, took his foot off the gas, and rolled along at a steady 4 mph. He locked the doors and continued his North Avenue tour. He didn’t want to drive through the Affordable Housing Projects but didn’t see an option other than backing up all the way to Wilson. He’d already accumulated two tickets this year for the inappropriate use of a one-way street and had a court date for the incorrect interpretation of traffic signals. Multiple counts.

Affordable Housing was meant to reserve a percentage of otherwise unaffordable space at a steep discount. It was housing meant to replace Projects, not expand them. He hadn’t read or heard anything about the neighborhood, but low-income families were generally troubled, and he didn’t want any part of it. 

If the car hadn’t been driving itself, he would have missed it. About a hundred yards before the four-way stop at the end of the North Avenue, Matt noticed a street sign between two condemned pre-war factories.

Maybe it had a back exit that bypassed the projects. He decided the odds were in favor and turned onto a well graded dirt road. It was either brand spanking new or maintenance went at it after every heavy rainfall. He didn’t think the city would give it much love other than the once-a-year minimum required to keep snowplows from falling into the abyss.

The car rounded a sharp bend and hit pavement. He was at the entrance of what looked like a large medical building situated on a dozen fortified acres of city scrub. The street address was carved into a twelve-foot block of unfinished granite and American Ophthalmologists prominently displayed from the roof. There was a Welcome sign and a concrete bench. The illusion was good, the sign seemed to be hovering over the back of the bench.

Matt parked in the front row of a mostly empty lot and hustled himself through the front doors. He was greeted by a giant blue arrow occupying the security desk. A piece of printer paper was taped to the middle of the arrow. It read: AO check in: 4th Floor. Between the blue arrow and the elevator bank, there was a glass staircase rising in a gentle arc all the way to the third-floor balcony.

The fourth-floor receptionist was shiny. Shiny people made Matt angry. She handed him a clipboard full of pale blue forms and a pen and pointed to the waiting area.

Matt panicked; there were at least ten double sided forms and some of the questions were a little uncomfortable. He thought about leaving those pages blank but decided to be honest. They wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t need the information, and good old HIPAA would at least keep it contained, assuming they took insurance.

He balked at the questions about his sex life. The intimate questions were mostly in quantitative format; Five being ‘absolutely yes, all the time’, and one being, ‘he/she threw me out of the bed a year ago’. Maybe he wasn’t the only one.

The short answer questions were very specific, and his answers were very brief. What he did in the privacy of his own bathroom wasn’t anybody’s business.

Thirty minutes later, he returned the forms and pulled his insurance card out of his wallet. Ms. Shiny smiled and told him to take a seat. They didn’t need it for the initial evaluation and would discuss payment terms if he decided to proceed with treatment. 

“But I’m here for an eye exam, right?”

“Of course, but our doctors take a holistic approach toward vision correction. There will be a variety of options once your evaluation is complete.”

“But it’s an eye exam, right?”

“Well, yes, your eyes will be thoroughly examined.” 

Matt sat down and picked up the only magazine on the table, the current edition of Mother Jones. An up close and personal portrait of a wild pig jumped off the first page. Hungry wild pigs were apparently single handedly destroying the environment. He rolled his eyes, returned the magazine to the pile, and pulled out his phone. No bars and an apology from Safari for not being able to find the server.

A WIFI connection popped up: AOHQ. Matt got up and asked if there was a guest password; the receptionist shook her shiny head and said, “No sir, we find that sort of thing distracting. It’s better if you’re fully present, don’t you think?” Matt returned to his chair, leaned back, and closed his eyes. 

“Mr. Franklin? Mr. Franklin, Doctor will see you now. It will be easier if you open your eyes for this part.” The receptionist was standing over him with the clipboard holding his paperwork, which was remanded into his custody as soon as he was on his feet. “Doctor will want this, so just hang onto it, OK?” Matt nodded and followed her down a well-lit hallway, and into an examining room where he was instructed to sit and stay. “Doctor will be right with you!” 

“Wait! This is a medical exam room! I just need an eye exam! Why the hell am I here and where’s all the eye doctor stuff?”

“Holistic approach, remember? You can’t just look at a single part of a person and diagnose based on isolated information. Think about it, if you went to a doctor about your knees and the doctor examined only your knees, what’s the likelihood you’d get a viable diagnosis? Zero to none, right? Most knee problems are just symptoms of problems in other parts of the body. Did you know over half this country is walking around with ineffective prescriptions because optometrists with minimal training miss something? The mission of American Ophthalmologists is to identify and correct the fallout.”

“Fallout?”

“Yes, fallout. What do you think happens when 166 million people walk around mostly blind? It’s an absolute shit show out there, or hadn’t you noticed?”

Matt was pretty sure Mr. Hunter didn’t wear glasses, but maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe he couldn’t read past his own dogmatic propaganda to truly understand his political choices. Maybe he couldn’t properly identify faces. Wouldn’t that be some sort of fallout? 

If Mr. Hunter had his vision properly corrected, he might look at Laura a little differently, although Matt was still hard pressed to defend an act of vandalism. A small, traitorous voice suggested it might be his wife in need of vision correction. Not that her behavior excused his neighbor’s. Did it? After all, he was the one with the lawn full of propaganda.

*

A tall man wearing a surgical headlamp knocked and entered with his hand pre-extended. Matt’s right hand moved up and down, a slow yes, yes, yes; a counterweight to the receptionist’s implied no, no, no.

“Hi, Matt! I’m Doctor Evans. Welcome, glad you made it! I see Christie’s sent you back with your forms, that’s excellent. We’ll review the highlights together and then send the package over to the analysts.”

“Analysts?”

“We have a team of dweebs in the back who do nothing but feed this stuff into a data lake, run the whole thing through a gazillion algorithms, spit it back into an analytics machine, and Boom! More information about YOU in the world than you could possibly imagine. Great stuff. Couldn’t do half this work without it.” 

“Is this part of the holistic thing Christie was talking about?”

“You bet! It’s not just daily stress that affects your vision, Mr. Franklin. Your personal observations and conclusions about the world have direct impact on your physical and mental well-being. Believe it or not, your eyes take the brunt of the assault.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Of course not! How could you? Our mission isn’t just about correcting vision, it’s about broadening peripheral perception.”

“Is that like altering perception?”

“Not exactly. Imagine you’d spent your entire life so nearsighted anything more than three feet past your face was a blur. This would be the baseline of your reality. That would look normal to you, right? Let’s say we gave you a pair of corrective lenses and suddenly the green patch twelve feet in front of you turned into individual blades of grass. You might experience that as a radical alteration of perception, but the truth hasn’t changed.”

Dr. Evans slapped himself onto the doctor’s stool and scooted back across the room. He flipped through Matt’s forms, stopping about halfway through the pile. “OK, I’d like to start with the family dynamics in your household. I’m going to ask you to lie back and cross your arms over your chest while I slip these frames directly over your glasses. You won’t see well, and the blur might be a little disorienting, but please try to keep your eyes open. Are you ready?”

“I’m here, might as well get it done.”

Matt left American Ophthalmologists sporting a brand-new pair of frames. He’d forgotten to ask if there was another exit off the property. When he turned left at the four-way stop at the end of North Avenue, he waved to a group of kids on the sidewalk in front of a large, sprawling apartment complex with an unusual number of playgrounds. The kids smiled and waved back.

A few parts of the drive were a little surreal, but he wasn’t particularly bothered. The usual suspects were weaving in and out of traffic and kind of fun to watch. He decided not to join them. It was nice to just chill and let the traffic river take him home.

*

Matt was just fine until he pulled into his own driveway. He was about to hit the garage door opener when it occurred to him that he might not be in his own driveway. He closed his eyes, tossed his new frames onto the passenger seat, and killed the engine. He took a breath, counted to ten and opened his eyes. There it was. His garage door. The one with the panel he’d barely tapped after an office party. Laura was apoplectic. He wasn’t sure if she was more bothered by the dent or the fact that he’d made the dent while slightly under the influence.

This was his garage door. The one with the red paint about halfway up the left side. Kid had to jump to slap the brush up that high. Kid ought to be in reform school, for at least a week. Laura’s response was less than supportive. “I’ve already scrubbed the shit out of it, Matt, and Jeffry got up on a chair and helped. If you can’t live with it, get yourself a couple gallons of white paint and give it a little love. You could even take the opportunity to replace that bashed in panel you’ve been bitching about.”

He put the glasses back on and stared at the illusion of a brand-new door.

The glasses were temporary. The standard prescription was current, but Dr. Evans said he’d have something a little more permanent after the thirty-day trial period. They’d have time to analyze incoming data and make a few minor adjustments. Corrections. That’s the word he used, corrections as if somebody made a mistake. Frankly, it felt like a bad acid trip. What he was seeing did not align with his understanding of reality.

Before Matt left the building, Dr. Evan walked him through the basic premise one more time, “We see the world through a sort of haze, with or without prescription lenses. As we get older, the haze turns into what we like to call a metaphorical cataract. Corrective lenses give the haze a gentle scrub and we start to see things a little closer to reality.

Dr. Evans told Matt to call Christie if he had any difficulty seeing, didn’t understand what he was seeing, or felt upset without understanding why. He also mentioned there was a minor chance that if Matt wore the glasses for an extended period of time, he might experience a little bit of a headache.

“It’s an unusual symptom, Mr. Franklin, and it will pass, but I don’t want you to be alarmed. If you get headache, give Christie a call, and then lie down in a dark room with the glasses off and your eyes shut. It will pass.”

“How long is an extended period of time?”

“Well, usually more than eight to ten hours until your eyes adjust, but sometimes a little less. It depends on how much you can process.”

*

Matt left the car in the driveway and wandered up the front walk. The grass was a bloody miracle. Ten years of annual seeding, ample fertilizer, crabgrass killer, plenty of water, a weekly trim and his lawn never looked this good. He removed the glasses. Roadside scrub with a bald spot spread from porch to hedge. He put the glasses back on, green like Ireland. He paused at the front door; a little worried, a little excited, but mostly hopeful.

Laura was in the kitchen and the television was off. The kids were sitting on the living room rug contemplating the join in two sections of plastic train track. Samantha, two years older than Jeffry, figured it out and snapped them together. Jeffry could be expected to hit Sam over the head with the nearest toy for the crime of winning, if putting two sections of a track together could be considered a win/lose game.

There was music. Matt was poleaxed. When the hell had Laura last turned the television off? When Samantha was born. That's when. She said it was the only way to get through the day. It seemed to settle the kid and she could go to the bathroom by herself. When Jeffry was born, she turned the volume up. That made sense, the kid sounded like amplified nails on a blackboard.

The television was off, the kids were playing like civilized little people, and he was listening to... Orinoco Flow? Enya? Laura looked up from the cutting board and smiled. She'd been singing just a moment ago. 

She came out from behind the kitchen island, deposited what looked like a niçoise salad on the table, and turned to greet him. She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face to his chest. "You smell so good. I could stay here forever, but the rest of dinner’s about to come out of the oven. Can I get you anything before I pick up that knife? By the way, those frames look great!"

He started to feel a little swimmy. Why say, 'pick up that knife'? Why not, 'get dinner on the table'?

Matt went to the bathroom, removed his glasses, and splashed water on his face. He cleared his eyes and looked in the mirror. Same old Matt, a little loose in the jowls, receding hairline, and slightly beady eyes. He put the glasses back on and saw David Beckham. He took the glasses off and considered calling Christie but decided this wasn't something he felt like bitching about. Matt returned the frames to his face and sauntered back to the dining room. 

Dinner was a Franklin Family Miracle. Jeffry spilled his milk, and no one screamed. No food was thrown and very little landed on the floor. Laura had prepared a Gruyere soufflé to accompany what turned out to be a chilled salmon salad with green beans, dill, and sour cream; the kids ate without complaint. She'd changed the music to something a little more upbeat. He felt relaxed, and something he couldn't quite identify. When Samantha and Jeffry got up to clear the table, he recognized a long dormant emotion. Matt Franklin felt happy. 

*

Laura wasn’t up to the morning drop-off; she’d had a knockdown, drag out with another SAHM and was still licking her wounds. She suggested the kids take the school bus and went back to bed. Breakfast was consumed in silence; Jeffry didn’t have a good track record on the bus.

They carried their bowls to the sink and Samantha tied Jeffry into his shoes. He should still be in Velcro, but Dad was of the firm and unbending belief that any child attending a full day of school, i.e., first grade, COULD BLOODY WELL TIE HIS OWN SHOES.

She triple-knotted the laces and reminded him not to remove his shoes until he got home. Jeffry's head went up and down and back and forth. Crazy. Samantha zipped him into his jacket. Mom hadn't made lunch and Samantha assumed correctly that she’d already crawled back into bed. She gave Jeffry a clear directive to STAY.

Sam ran up the stairs as quietly as a forty pound eight-year-old can be expected to run up an uncarpeted staircase. She found two dollars in her room, ran down the stairs and stuffed the cash into Jeffry's pocket. "That's for lunch, Jeffry, do you understand?" Jeffry did the yes and no thing. Samantha gave up. The kid would figure out how to feed himself or he wouldn't.

She heard the bus, snatched up both packs, grabbed her brother by the hood of his jacket and hauled him out the door. They wouldn’t be expected; Jeffry had been banned last year. She crossed her fingers, dragged him to the curb, and waved at the bus driver. The bus driver stopped, and the doors opened.

At the top of the steps Samantha scanned the occupants and available seats. She pushed Jeffry down the aisle to the first open bench, directed him to the window, and dropped herself into the outside seat. Technically you could fit three to a bench, but Samantha piled their backpacks on the middle seat.

This was a manspreading douchebag move, but it was either that or put a sign on her brother that read: ‘I have very sharp teeth’. To be safe, Sam applied her pissed off and possibly dangerous Mom face. She wished she’d picked up a Sharpie on the way out the door and written it on his forehead.

Laura heard the bus stop. She heard the doors open and close. She held her breath until the bus pulled away and wondered if Sam could handle a biting incident. Verbal communication was going to be out of the question until later this afternoon.

When she was sure they weren't coming back, she sat up and screamed until her throat hurt. She drank some water and let loose a second time. Laura continued the scream and water cycle until her voice broke and then headed for the shower.

While the 48-year-old boiler decided what to do about a second request for lukewarm water, Laura dropped her sweats on the floor and stood on the scale. She'd hit triple digits again. If she was taller than 5'8", maybe she could accept one or two pounds over the mark, but she was exactly 5’8”. Close, but not a chance.

She opened her mouth to scream and was rewarded with the distinct impression that she'd ruptured something. When the lukewarm water arrived, she stepped into shower, and replayed the Franklin Family Film Festival.

Matt was loco when he walked through the front door. He was wearing the most absurd frames she'd ever seen. If he'd been in his twenties, or even early thirties he might have pulled it off, but he was pushing forty-six and looked like an idiot.

She'd taken a family size box of fish sticks out of the freezer and was arranging them on a cookie sheet which she slid under the broiler. They'd be a little crispier than usual but with enough Ketchup, those kids would eat anything. Matt learned the hard way to keep his mouth shut. The last time he indicated displeasure she’d put her fork into the back of his hand.

Laura turned back to the island, hacked up a head of iceberg lettuce and dumped the chunks into a large mixing bowl. She performed the same ritual on two overripe tomatoes, dropped the soggy chunks on top of the lettuce, and covered the mess with half a bottle of no-fat ranch dressing. She gave it a quick toss, salted the top, set it in the middle of the table and spun around because the kids were...

She couldn't remember when he'd last had the audacity to touch her. Probably last year when she told him if he couldn't keep all of himself on his own side of the king size bed, he’d need to relocate all of himself to the guest room.

Matt mentioned the lack of a guest room. Laura mentioned the first-floor room to the left of the powder room. "It's Laura Ashely pink and cream with big cabbage roses on the comforter that match the sofa and window treatments and, oh, wait, the comforter is in the closet because the bed is in the garage because somebody NEEDED A MAN CAVE! Well, guess what, that man cave is the guest room. It just happens to be missing a bed. I'm sure you'll find the sofa a reasonable replacement. Just shovel your shit on the floor and you'll be fine.” Yup. That was the last time. 

…fucking with the sound system again which was when she was assaulted by an octopus. One hand smushed her face into his chest and held it there; the other pressed against her lower back but appeared to be moving south. "You can’t hold me here forever, Matt, those fish sticks are going to combust in the next 30 seconds. Maybe you should pour yourself a drink. You know how to find your way to the bar.” 

He let her go and trotted off toward the bathroom. Dinner was tolerable. No tears, no bickering, and nobody said one word about charred fish sticks and gloppy lettuce. There was a single spilled milk incident, but Sam took care of it. Sam never yelled at Jeffry. The last time she yelled at Jeffry, also about a year ago, Matt needed sixteen stitches and Jeffry was muzzled until breakfast.

The evening was not the standard cluster fuck. Aside from the octopus incident, Matt was respectful of her boundaries. But something was off; she was unsettled and anxious and couldn’t pinpoint anything that needed to be pounded into submission which meant she was going to remain unsettled and anxious until she worked it out.

She flopped back on her side of the bed, still wrapped in a bath sheet, and closed her eyes. She decided to play the elevator game and see if it jogged her memory. The elevator game wasn't really a game, it was just controlled breathing, but the yoga instructor made like it was some super spiritual event which caused Laura to get up and leave the room when the breathing part was over.

She found the breathing useful and calling it a game made it easier; nice and neat, no magical intent, and best of all, grounded in well documented, peer reviewed scientific journals. Controlled breathing was helpful for all number of ailments and atrocities. It was also a form of Autohypnosis and tended to put her to sleep after the third or fourth round. 

Laura did sleep. For ninety minutes she drifted in and out of consciousness, as close to peace as she ever got. She might have made it another thirty if she hadn't found what she was looking for.

The light was already off, and she was listening for his breathing to even out so she could go to sleep. When he was quiet and still, she closed her eyes and let go. If he'd waited another sixty seconds, she wouldn't have heard him.

"I'm so happy. Laurie."

"What?"

"I love you, Laurie."

What?!

Laurie? Nobody called her Laurie except her sister, and her sister was a dick. She left the “Laurie-Laurie” business behind: day one, first semester, freshman year.

*

Six-year-old children are cruel. Halfway through the school year, Laura decided first grade was when the assholes distinguish themselves and the humans learn to run for cover. Most of them. This epiphany occurred the day she had an accident in the stairwell.

She didn’t want to go all the way downstairs and had to go really bad anyway. To avoid making a mess of herself, she dropped her underpants, lifted her skirt, and squatted. She was right, she would not have made it to the bathroom. She pulled herself together and ran back up the stairs. She didn’t notice the small bit of poop stuck to the toe of one black patent leather shoe.

She’d been back in her seat less than five minutes before the lunch bell. During those less than five minutes, twenty-seven people smelled the poop and twenty-six of them located the source like a pack of bloodhounds.

Her teacher asked what happened and she said she must have stepped in it on the way out of the bathroom. She walked over to the brown paper towel roll, tore off a piece and calmly wiped off her shoe. Having deposited the wad in her teacher’s wastebasket, she returned to her seat just in time for the lunch bell. Twenty-five students ran for the door and lined up behind their teacher; Laurie dragged her feet to the back of the line.

Her teacher saw Laurie’s indiscretion and tried to redirect the class back up the stairs but stopping twenty-five hungry six-year-olds is like standing in front of a pack of rabid Yankees fans on opening day. They tore past her into the open stairwell and piled up at the landing. In the corner, neat as could be, was a very large pile of poop that looked and smelled suspiciously like what had just come off Laurie Allen’s shoe.

In less than a nanosecond, she was tried, convicted, and sentenced to eleven and a half years.

“Laurie-Laurie, vomitory won’t go in the lavatory!”

*

Laura earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Robotics. She had a government contract in hand two weeks after the completion of her graduate program. For two years, she got to wear a white coat and watch men build actual little robots that did actual things that didn't appear to be based upon any actual logic whatsoever.

She fetched coffee for too little money and cleaned up brute force code she could have written flawlessly the first time. When she got bored, which was most of the time, she sat on a stool at the end of a very long table and played in her own sandbox. No one noticed.

When a recruiter employed by a manufacturing company called her out of the blue she took the first interview on the phone three hours later, squatting against the wall of a stairwell five flights below the lab. She called in sick the next morning and went through a four-hour battery of back-to-back interviews in her funeral suit. 

A signed offer letter arrived the following afternoon. The salary indicated was well over six figures. Laura blinked a couple times, did the math, and came up with roughly four times her current salary. She called the recruiter and asked for an explanation. "I don't understand what your company is looking for. The job description is vague, but even with the parts I do understand, what I don't get is how you think my skill sets fit your requirements."

"Wow. That's direct."

"Wouldn't you prefer direct at this point over confusion and possible disappointment after the fact?"

"Yes, I guess I would. OK, I'll lay this out as well as I understand and if that's not enough, I'll pull in one of the directors. Deal?"

"Fair enough."

"The IT department is working on ways to eliminate or automate repetitive, manual tasks. For example, one of our directors spends upward of fifteen hours a week manually reviewing change requests. Change requests that look viable but don't have enough information get sent back to the requestor and she's got to track and follow up. If there is enough information, she documents the change and sends the request to IT. IT calls her back in a week and says, sure, we can do that or, nope, sorry, try again. This is not her function, but she's stuck with it..."

"OK, stop. If I understand correctly, you want someone to automate those steps, bypassing human hands entirely." 

"Nope. Not entirely. Just the manual parts, which is the real time-consuming stuff. She still has to review and sign off."

"You do understand I have no background, whatsoever, with software."

"You also have no background in Data Governance, but what you do for the government is code review and process control. Those little critters you people are building for whatever reason you're building them, are driven by code, which you understand and controlled by process you put in place."

"Right, but that's the only code I understand and the only processes I’ve ever managed."

The recruiter laughed. "Ever heard of transferable skill sets?"

Laura was twenty-six when 'her real life' took off, and thirty-five when it derailed.

*

The signs went up in the middle of April. There were four, which were three too many, but the board wanted a mass marketing campaign which included one large and three small signs on each board member's front lawn. "It's going to look like a political campaign, starting with the colors!" He was overridden, six to one.

The signs were pale blue and white with large red text at the bottom and red and blue books flying in goose formation. They were designed by the librarian’s twelve-year-old granddaughter.

Nobody reads lawn signs; they're driving too fast to do anything but process shapes and colors. Assumptions are made and the message is lost. Overridden. He let it go, pounded four stakes into the ground toward the edge of his lawn, and waited for the inevitable egging of his front door. He lived in a political hotbed and shared a hedgerow with a sweaty stick of dynamite. 

He tried to avoid contact, but the guy next door backed his car out of the garage same time every morning; thirty seconds after Reed walked out his front door. If Reed came out at 7, Matt came out at 7. If Reed got the paper at 6, Matt showed up at 6. If conversation was required, Reed kept it to a benign minimum. Hello. Good morning. Looks like some lousy weather coming in. Have a good day.

The incident with Matt's car was regrettable. He'd been out late with a client and earned himself a raging hangover. He knew he was checked out and he knew he'd failed to process the garage door opening. He heard the car backing up and the sound of toys under tires rolling way too fast and that was on him. He walked right into it and stood there like an idiot. Matt was clearly breathing napalm and Reed, you moron, you didn't even flinch.

Hangover fueled rage tripped the landmine and Reed let loose. Nothing he screamed was remotely reasonable, but that last bit was unforgivable. He didn't even have a fireplace, much less a mantel, and that thing with Matt's wife, he should have seen it coming.

The best thing he could have done was nothing. She was entitled to her rage, and he'd earned the backlash. However, it was a bloody year ago. Cut a guy some slack. He apologized, explained, and assumed he had the moral high ground. Maybe he didn't. Maybe she did.

The worst part was his relationship with her kids. They were still cutting through the break in the hedgerow to play with the rabbit. They were smart enough to stick to the backyard but that didn’t make them invisible. Truthfully, he missed them, and his tolerance of their presence was selfish. Bringing them the occasional soft drink or snack was unbelievably stupid, but he did it anyway. In conclusion, Reed felt like a piece of shit and his rage had nothing to do with Matt Franklin. Best he could do going forward was shoot for invisibility, including leaving the signs in the garage. Except this morning. Where the hell had that come from?

This time there was no garage door. Reed was alert, head clear, and watchful. He’d managed to avoid Matt for two days and had no intention of screwing up. There was no garage door, but he did hear the engine turn over, and he was aware of the car backing slowly down the drive. He considered turning back but heard his father: “Coward!” Fine. Onward. 

Matt put the car in park and got out. Reed expected to be shot but his neighbor walked around the front of the car, smiled, and held out his hand. Reed accepted the hand. The survival voice in his head whispered, 'run! idiot! run!' He was still having a hard time processing a conversation that ended with a request that he put the signs back on his lawn. Reed chuckled and asked if the signs were unclear because he had a feeling people were getting the wrong message.

"Not at all. Thing is, you've got the same right as anyone to express your opinions, political and religious beliefs, anything except kiddie porn, I guess. We've been pretty unreasonable and I'm sorry."

"Ahhhh, I hear you on that one and I do appreciate your saying so, but I'm pretty sure nobody is actually reading the signs."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what do you see when you look at the signs? It's OK, you're entitled to your perception; I can't get backed up about that."

"Uh. OK. Please don't be offended; this is just my perception, right? Doesn't make it wrong, right?"

"Exactly. And you'd be doing me a big favor letting me know what you see. Perception being reality and all that."

"Makes sense, I guess. OK, what we see...."

"No. Just you. You and everyone in your family are separate people. Everybody gets a vote, right?"

"Yeah, that's the thing. Everybody gets a vote, and everybody's got a right to campaign for whomever they'd like."

"Right. So, what do you see?"

"Jeeze, Reed, this is uncomfortable, but OK. We. I mean, I see incendiary campaign posters and we're not even in an election year. It's one thing to state a belief and another to denigrate anyone who doesn't believe what you believe."

"Totally agreed, Matt; do you have a minute? I'd like to show you something."

Matt, still a little leery of winding up stuffed and mounted, followed Reed to the garage. The signs stacked against a wall looked like Laura may have bitten the corners off the larger sign and amped her game up from there.

Reed held up the larger sign. “Can you do me a favor and read this out loud?"

"Yeah. Sure.” Matt read the sign, word for word, top to bottom.

Beaver-Hunter Library Fundraiser
Help defray the cost of the Children's Wing restoration
Book Sale!
Wednesday, June 8 on the green
10 AM - 2 PM

"Shit." Matt visibly cringed.

"Yeah, I know. Too many words, not enough clarity, nothing about donations, and no contact info. Plus, it's blue and red. How much worse could it be?"

"But the books! It's got flying books! That's crystal clear."

"I don't think people see books."

"Yeah, I guess from a distance they look like Flying RINOs, but I think you ought to put them back up anyway. Like, today because June 8th is coming up fast. Hey, it's funny your name and the library name. Any relation?"

"Yes. Beaver was my grandmother's maiden name."

"And Hunter?"

"My grandfather. I’m sort of obligated to be on the board. It's an inherited seat. I'm mostly there to manage the trust but I don't have more than one vote. When my father held the seat, he made a shit show of it. He might not have had more than one vote, but he sure knew how to strongarm committees. You could say my father is the reason the children's wing is falling apart. Funds were diverted two generations ago and it's been allowed to go to hell up until now."

"Wow. I had no idea, man. I'm sorry about all of this.”

Reed Beaver (no hyphen) Hunter took his paper back to his house, dropped it on the kitchen table, and sat with his head in his hands. He wanted to call Laura and ask what the hell happened to her husband but that would be a cataclysmic event. The conversation would migrate to his bed and end with Laura shouting obscenities from her bedroom window. That woman was possibly the most volatile human he’d ever met; she reminded him of his ex. That was problematic.

Reed, still in his ducky pants, put the signs back. Most of them were no longer legible, but that might be less incendiary. He showered, put on a suit and tie, and walked the twenty-step commute to his office. At the end of the day, the signs were still standing. At the end of the day, Reed was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. On the other hand, he looked forward to another mailbox meeting. The likelihood of being shot increased in direct proportion to Laura's angst. On the other-other hand, he was interested in getting to know his neighbor. Maybe 'compelled' was a better word.

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