23

I Shall Not Want

I awoke in a sweat and threw the covers off. I tugged at the wet collar of my shirt, stuck to my neck, and got out of bed. I exhaled in relief that the nightmare was over. The vision of black, oily tar, clinging to my body in a tarry mess, left me. But I still felt dirty as if some remnant wouldn’t come clean. I rubbed my eyes and made my way to the bathroom to take a leak. I did my business and put the toilet seat back down. It was the right thing to do, a compulsory act like taking out the trash without being prompted. No rewards are given for the duty performed, but doing the right thing even if it costs you dignity builds character, at least that’s what I’m told. I don’t have any character.

I moved over to the sink and looked at my scruffy face. Yes, it was like any other day: difficulty awakening, still shaking off the nightmares of the night before. I showered and shaved hastily. It was 6 a.m., a late start for me. Daylight Saving Time didn’t save me from pushing the alarm three times, lengthening my nightmarish sleep another 30 minutes. I rushed through the house, stepping on Polly Pockets, a pair of Converse tennis shoes, and a bottle of finger nail polish. I made my way to the refrigerator to make my lunch. I ground some Arabica coffee beans to make some coffee in the hopes that I could drink the sleep from my eyes. As I made my ham sandwich, I turned to watch the slow falling droplets of coffee, ever expanding zeroes, lapping against the sides of the carafe. I took a few swallows of the steaming coffee in the hopes I would wake up. It didn’t work. A hazy stupor settled on my brain as I finished packing my lunch. I made my way toward my study to grab my briefcase and look at some tax documents before leaving for work. I tripped on our calico cat, which conveniently darted in front of me once I scared it from its perch on top of my keyboard. I stumbled and coffee spilled on my tie. “Dang it.” Dumb cat. Never should have gotten it from the animal shelter. My loud mutterings awoke my wife and three children.

Great. I thought. Now I have to deal with them. Early mornings were my time. Now I had to share.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” My daughter Katie asked, squinting at me in the low light emanating from my office lamp, as she walked into the room in her powder, blue robe.

“Daddy’s getting ready for work,” I said. “Why don’t you go back to bed? You need your sleep.”

“I was having the worst nightmare,” she said. “I was dreaming that you were trapped in an elevator, and the elevator began to fall. That’s when I woke up.”

“That’s nice dear,” I said, half listening, still wondering if I should change ties because of the coffee stain. I really didn’t feel like changing ties; it was such a hassle. I was stuck, anyway; I was already late. I’ll put a sweater over it. I decided. It’s supposed to be chilly today. I’ll just leave my sweater on all day. It’ll work out.

“Daddy, are you OK?” she asked.

“I’m fine.” I picked her up and held her eyes level with mine. “I’m just late. I’ve got to. Hugs and kisses.” This was our routine. We would hug and kiss before I left the house.

“Good morning, Frank.” My wife breezed into the room as I handled the doorknob.

“Good morning, Lacey,” I said.

“You look awful,” she said.

“Thanks. Just what I needed to hear,” I said.

“Really. Did you spill coffee on yourself?”

“Yes,” I said.

She proceeded to pull my tie out of my sweater and rub Shout into it. The stain magically came out. I wouldn’t need to wear the sweater after all. I thanked her and was on my way. She had her moments. Most of the time, we fought, like last night. She was late with dinner again, and I had to go to my board meeting hungry. All the other guys at the meeting were joking around, and my night was ruined. I never was able to finish the financials that I was supposed to present at the board meeting, and I looked like an unprepared goof. No one said anything, but they were all so well put together. They had the trophy wife, 2 ½ kids, Beemer in the three-car garage, kids with straight A’s, and monstrous house.

I never could figure out why they chose me to be on the board. I was the oddball, the one with a beat up minivan and just barely a six-figure income. They needed someone with a strong financial background. I guess I had one. My degree at Hartford College had really paid dividends. I had little trouble finding a job at Smith & Associates. I got kind of lost in the shuffle though, bogged down in office politics, and didn’t make partner. I still had a cubicle while John Serratt, who had joined the firm at the same time, had made partner and now had an office with a view. It had been so humiliating. I was the first one he told, and he expected me to be happy. I think he was really rubbing my nose in it, but I could never prove it. What do you say? Were you gloating when you told me you made partner?

No, I just had to suck it up like every other time, someone got ahead of me.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Lucy asked.

Her morning peck on the cheek: I always kissed her on the way out, and she often reminded me. I walked over to her and pecked her on the cheek.

“I gotta go. I’m late.”

“You’re forgetting Alex,” she said. “You told me you would drop him off at his day care.”

“Geez,” I said under my breath. This is going to take forever. I checked my watch. I had 45 minutes to drop off Alex and get to work. If traffic was not backed up, and Alex was reasonable, I might make it.

“All right,” I said. “Is Alex ready to go?”

“Come on, Alex. It’s time to go,” Lucy called upstairs.

Alex bounded down the stairs and flicked the stair lights on and off, on and off.

“Time for work, dad. Time for work, dad.”

“That’s right, Alex,” I said. “Time for work. Are you ready to go?”

“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Dad. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Dad.” He said and smiled.

Alex always watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in the morning.

“Alex, we have to go,” I said. “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse doesn’t end until 7:30 o’clock, and I have to be at work at 8.”

“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Dad. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Dad,” he said again.

“Not this morning, Alex. It’s time to go.”

“No. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Dad.”

We went back and forth. Alex was determined. Usually, I would give in but not this time. Ron Gibbs my manager had begun docking our vacation time when we were late. I lost an hour last month from these Mickey Mouse Clubhouse conversations and frankly I had had enough of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Smith & Associates had been downsizing, and I was doing all I could to hold on. Who knows? Maybe, it was a good thing. I didn’t get that corner office. There were rumors that management was shopping the firm to a Fortune 500 company. If that happened, they’d probably bring in their own management team. There was so much uncertainty at work and the world. People talked about change like it was a good thing, not always. After Alex was born, everything had definitely changed. I hated to admit it, but my life certainly hadn’t improved as far as I could tell.

I sunk most of my paycheck into his therapies, and honestly his condition hadn’t improved much. Alex was our autistic son. Our special child, Lucy used to say. She didn’t say it so much anymore, and I was beginning to wonder if we had made the right decision.

She had gotten pregnant at 40 against our better judgment. We had considered aborting with all the inherent risks of having a child so late in life. I’d been on the fence. I knew it shouldn’t be a form of birth control but in certain instances, I thought it seemed a reasonable decision. Lucy was adamant. She would not have an abortion.

You expect us to abort? She had yelled at her ObGyn when he broached the subject. She changed doctors that day and wouldn’t even talk about it when I brought it up.

I checked my watch as we climbed into the car: 7:45. I had agreed to let Alex watch the beginning of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Sometimes, there was just no refusing him. Now, I had 15 minutes to travel 15 miles. I was going to be late again. That’s another 10 minutes off my vacation time. Who could account for traffic anyway? Unfortunately, I don’t run the universe. I tried turning onto the Beltline. A red Camaro wouldn’t let me into the right lane. I pushed the accelerator with my foot. Our Dodge minivan was giving all it could, the overworked motor shaking the car. The guy in the Camaro turned and smiled.

Jerk. I was running out of lane. I yelled at him through my window. There was no way in, the left lane was full of cars. I slammed on my brakes. He sped past, and I swerved in behind him. The car behind me lay on the horn. I looked in the rear view mirror. The driver was gesticulating obscenities.

Right back at ‘ya. I thought.

“You didn’t put your turn signal on, Dad. You didn’t put your turn signal on, Dad,” Alex said.

“I know, Alex,” I said. “It’s going to be OK.”

“Policeman, Dad,” he said. “Policeman, Dad.”

“It’s OK, Alex. The police don’t mind. They do it all the time,” I said.

“Policeman, Dad,” Alex pointed behind us.

I looked in my rear view mirror. Sure enough, there was a police car two cars back in the left lane. How could I have missed it? I hope he doesn’t pull me over. Just then the police car’s siren went off. The other cars began to slow and move to the right shoulder. I pulled over as well. The officer weaved in behind me. Great. This is the last thing I need. I pulled to a complete stop.

“Policeman, Dad.” Alex said.

I dropped my head. Please, no.

The sound of the siren moved away. I looked up. The police car kept moving. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Thank you. Thank you.

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