Chapter 1: Something Less than Life
The first inning was barely over when Nate’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and stared at the all-too familiar number on his caller ID, willing it to go away. It was work. It was always work. Work was inescapable, even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the Cell.
“I thought I told you to turn that thing off,” his friend Vince said, not bothering to cover the note of annoyance in his voice.
“Sorry. I have to take this call.”
“You always have to take the call.”
Nate ignored his friend and hit Answer. “Lassiter,” he said, holding it to his right ear and plugging his left to try to rid himself of the crowd noise. “Uh huh…uh huh,” he barely spoke, only listened and nodded as if the other person were standing in front of him. The chance to speak finally came, and Vince didn’t like what he heard from his friend.
“Okay,” Nate sighed. “I’ll be there in a little while.”
“I can’t believe you just did that,” Vince said as Nate put the phone back in his pocket. “We haven’t done anything in months and you’re giving up on a perfect day at the ballpark to go to the office.”
Nate stared out over the baseball diamond as the Chicago White Sox took the field for the top of the second inning. “I know, Vince,” he finally said, unwilling to look his friend in the eye. “It sucks, but I have to do it.” He slumped back into his seat and tilted his head back, trying to pretend the sky wasn’t a perfect blue and the temperature a nearly perfect seventy-five degrees.
“Because they need me. Something in the credit card tracking system is screwed up and they need to get it fixed. A team’s coming in and they need a manager. I’ve got to do it.”
“And what do ‘they’ ever do for you, man? They call and tell you to jump and you drop everything and jump. Then they pay you back by calling you the next time there’s some stupid problem.”
“They pay me good money to do it,” Nate replied. “It’s a good job. I shouldn’t even have it at my age. So if I have to do a little more, I’ll do it.”
“Is your boss going to be there today?”
“Maybe,” Nate furrowed his brow and considered the possibility, “No, probably not.”
“Why is it so important that you have to go in, but your boss won’t be there?”
“He’s put in his time, Vince. That’s what happens. I haven’t put my time in yet, so I’ve got to do the hard work. One of these days I’ll be the one who’s off at his weekend place in Wisconsin while other people do all the work on a Saturday. Right now I have to build my reputation at the bank. The best reputation to have is as a troubleshooter.”
“Hey, I understand you need a rep, Nate,” Vince shook his head. “That doesn’t mean you should be giving up your life right now.”
Nate shook his head. “C’mon, man. There’ll be other days. There’ll be other games.”
“That’s what you say every time,” Vince replied, managing to sound like a scorned child.
“Like you should talk. You’re always at that store of yours.”
“It’s different with me,” Vince held his own cell phone up and indicated the blank display screen. “I know how to turn my phone off when I take a day off.”
“Must be good to be the boss.”
“You should know.”
“I’m not a boss, Vince, I’m a manager. It’s different.”
“Right. Because managers aren’t allowed to have lives, I forgot.”
“Look…” Nate shook his head. “Just chill. I’ve got enough going on right now, I don’t need any extra shit from you.”
Vince stood up. “Right. I guess we’ll just leave so you can be the good little peon.”
“You don’t have to leave.”
“What? Sit here by myself and watch the game? I can do that at home.” Vince shook his head in disgust. “I should have known to do that anyway.”
“Fine.” Nate decided it wasn’t a good fight. “Whatever.”
They left the ballpark and got on the Red Line, taking the El downtown in silence. As they emerged from the cool darkness of the Washington Street station into the sun-drenched May afternoon, Nate turned to his best friend.
“Hey, let’s do lunch on Monday. I’m buying.”
“You’d better. It’s the least you can do to make up for dragging my ass out of the game on such a beautiful day.”
“You could have stayed.”
“You could have, too, buddy.”
Nate sighed, unable to find the right words. Vince just shook his head and spun around, headed off in the direction of the train station and his suburban home. Nate walked slowly toward his office, shoulders slumped.
“Five months,” he muttered to himself. “I haven’t had a day off in five months.”
* * *
He managed to get out of the office just in time to make it to dinner with his girlfriend. She already had a table waiting when he arrived.
“Hey, Julia,” he said before leaning over to give her a quick kiss.
“So how was the game?” she asked.
“Didn’t get through the first inning,” Nate responded flatly.
Julia sighed. “Got called into work again?”
She stared at him in silence for a long moment. “Are you okay?” she finally asked, her voice edged with concern.
“Yeah. Of course I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine?” He heard his anger and frustration color his voice. On one level he hoped Julia would realize it wasn’t directed at her. On another level he didn’t really care anymore.
“You don’t look too good. Do you want to leave? We can do this some other time.”
“No,” he shook his head. “This isn’t bothering me. It was just today that was the problem. I guess I’m just a little tired of having to drop everything and go to the office all the time. I was looking forward to getting to the ballpark for weeks. Months, even.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“For what? It wasn’t your fault.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t feel bad, does it?”
“I guess not.”
“Oh,” she changed the subject, “I hate to do this to you, but I have more bad news.”
“I have to go to the Indianapolis office on Monday. I won’t be back until Thursday.”
“Why is that so bad? It’s not like I ever see you during the week anyway.”
She shook her head. “You need to get into a better mood. I just might leave you if you stay so fatalistic all the time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You do realize that’s a joke, right?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, “I guess I just don’t find it particularly funny. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she smiled, “We can always work on that.”
“Maybe I’ll quit my job and start working somewhere that allows me to take time off. Vince tells me he’s looking for someone on the sales floor.”
“Don’t you dare,” she said, screwing her face into a look of mock horror. “I will not date a stereo salesman.”
“Even if it makes me happy?”
A mad impulse to be completely honest flashed across his mind. For just a moment he wanted to say that nothing would really make him happy. He wanted to admit that he’d been turning all of his possible life scenarios over in his mind and none of them ended with him happy. Instead he shook his head and let out a long sigh. “No. No it wouldn’t.”
“Don’t quit your day job, then.”
“Fine,” he forced a smile. “I guess I’ll stay at the bank for a little longer.”
“Good,” she winked, “I knew you’d make the right choice.”
“So what’s wrong at the Indianapolis office?” he asked, trying to take his mind off his own job.
“I’m not really sure. Apparently there is some sort of minor legal issue and they want to keep it from becoming a major issue.” She shrugged, “I guess I’ll find out on Monday.”
“I guess so,” he agreed.
“Oh, I can’t stay over this weekend, either.”
“Prep work. Packing.” She shrugged. “You know how it is.”
Their waiter stepped up to the table. “Are you ready to order yet?” he asked politely.
Nate looked down at the menu for the first time. “Uh, no,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Very well, I’ll check back in a couple of minutes.”
The waiter disappeared. Nate suddenly realized he had forgotten to put his new credit card in his wallet that morning. He pulled out his wallet to check. “Ah, crud,” he said.
“This is my expired card,” he held it up to show her the date. “The new one’s at home.”
Julia sighed a loud, theatrical sigh and patted her purse. “I guess tonight’s on me, then,” she said, “Deadbeat.”
“I’ll pay you back,” Nate held his hands up defensively, “I’m good for it. You know I am”
They both laughed as the joke took some of the edge off their minds.
* * *
“Listen, Dad, it’s not that I’m complaining,” Nate shook his head in spite of the fact that his father couldn’t see him through the phone.
He had already adopted the subconscious routine common in all his recent conversations with his dad. Three steps across his tiny kitchenette, open the refrigerator, close it again, turn, take three steps back across the kitchenette, switch the small, black, cordless receiver to his other ear, repeat. He didn’t know why he did it, but for some reason his conversations with his father put him on edge. He needed advice, though, and had nowhere else to turn. Vince just offered him a job selling speakers and he could tell that the idea of changing things around bothered Julia. She liked stability. She needed it, really. He didn’t blame her for that, though. Her life hadn’t been particularly easy. It was going well at the moment, but he knew she lived in fear of seeing everything get messed up again.
“Did you hear what I just said, son?”
Nate suddenly realized he was ignoring his father. “Yes, Dad,” he didn’t really have to have heard what was said to know what the proper response was, “I know it’s a good job and that the market is on the side of the employers right now.”
“No, son, I don’t think you do,” the elder Lassiter responded. “You certainly aren’t acting like it.”
“You say that every time, Dad.”
“Does it get any less true?”
Nate stopped pacing. “I guess that no, it hasn’t gotten any less true. I just wish that you’d respond to what I’m saying rather than what you’re hearing. That would probably help me out.”
“Don’t mess with me, kid. I’m still your father, no matter how little you want it to be true.”
“No,” Nate drew in a sharp breath, “No, it’s not that, not that at all. It’s just that…”
“It’s just that the world isn’t what you wanted it to be, son.”
Nate resumed his pacing, remaining silent for nearly three laps of the kitchenette. “Yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”
“And what’s so bad about your life, son?” His father laughed. “What is so bad about having a good job, a good future and a good woman?”
“I’m not saying it’s bad.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I guess,” Nate paused, “I guess I’m saying that life isn’t what I had expected it to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“You always taught me how to get ahead in the world,” Nate sat down and rested his forehead in his free hand. “You told me that if I did well in school, went to a good college and got a good job, found someone to marry and settle down my life would be complete. You told me that if I did all those things nothing could stop me.”
“And you believed me, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Dad, yes I did. Then I went and did all of that stuff and it all just totally sucks.”
“So what changed?”
Nate sighed. “I don’t know, Dad. It’s like I went after everything you told me would put me on top, would get me ahead, and I’m not. All the things I was supposed to want, all the things I was supposed to get, it’s like they’ve trapped me. My job has taken away all of my freedom, I can’t even get to a baseball game without being pulled into the office on a Saturday. I can’t do anything about that because if I quit my job I can’t pay my bills and I’m no good to Julia. It’s just…” he found himself saying words that had remained unspoken so far, “It’s just not fair.”
“Well, son,” his father let out a short chuckle, “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“It’s all I can say, son. There are an awful lot of things I missed out on in life because of you and your mother. Someday you’ll understand that the things you think you’re missing now are things that you wouldn’t have wanted, anyway.”
“It’s still not fair.”
“Of course it’s not, son. But you’ll learn how to deal with it.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Nate said, not feeling any better.
“Do you want to talk to your mother?”
Nate paused, considering. “No, I’ll talk to her next weekend.”
“All right. Talk to you later, son.”
Nate put the phone down and sat in silence, staring at his refrigerator. “It just isn’t fair,” he told the appliance. “And nobody seems to be able to help me with this.”
Molly, the shaggy golden retriever he’d raised from a pup, trotted into the kitchen. She rested her head on his knee and scanned him with her dark, inquisitive eyes. She, at least, always showed up when he was feeling lousy.
“Hey, Molly,” he said, rubbing the little indentation in her forehead, “How are you doing?” She sat and soaked up his attention for a couple minutes. Eventually she stood up and started sniffing around the kitchen, apparently deciding the possibility that he’d spilled food was more important than he was.
Nate stood up and walked into the living room. He picked up the television remote and turned on Sportscenter before collapsing on his couch. After a minute Molly, having decided there was nothing for her in the kitchen, walked over, hopped up next to him and laid her head in his lap.
“We’re not going to be able to do this much longer, girl,” he said. The dog looked up at him. “I haven’t told anyone yet, but I bought a ring last week. I’m going to ask Julia to marry me. But she’s allergic to you, so I’ll have to send you somewhere else when that happens.”
Molly dropped her head down into his lap and let out a long, deep breath. He shook his head, nearly convinced by the dog’s response that she was human. The thought of giving her up was hard enough without having to deal with that though.
“I’m sorry, girl,” he whispered. This time the dog didn’t reply.
* * *
Nate awoke late on Monday morning and ended up missing his usual train, then the next. By the time he arrived at his office he was nearly an hour late for work. His assistant looked up from her desk, then cast a furtive glance at the door to his office.
“You have a visitor,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to give me anything else, Margaret?”
“Nope,” she offered a mischievous grin, “You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.”
“Thanks.” He shook his head and walked into his office, then nearly walked back out when he realized who his visitor was.
“Nate, it was so good of you to show up,” his boss said.
“Uh,” Nate tried to figure out what to say, “Uh, I’m sorry. I overslept.”
“Don’t worry, son,” his boss sat on the edge of Nate’s big wooden desk and picked up an autographed baseball. “Did you get this autograph yourself, or go through a dealer?”
“Got it from Frank Thomas himself, back in 1994. My uncle Joe took me to SoxFest.” He shook his head. “The Sox would have won the pennant that year, maybe the Series. But it didn’t happen.”
“Player strike. The season ended halfway through.”
“So I take it baseball is important to you.”
Nate shrugged, “Yeah, I’ve been a fan of the Sox since I was in kindergarten. I go to as many games as I can. Haven’t been to too many lately, though.” He instantly regretted adding that last part. From the look his boss gave him, he knew the frustration and anger was evident.
The boss didn’t react to the petulant statement. “I hear you missed a ball game over the weekend because you came in to the office,” his boss put the baseball down. “Is that true?”
“Got a call during the first inning, had to leave the game.”
“Sorry about that,” the other man stood up and clasped his shoulder, “But I can assure you, your effort will not go unrewarded.”
Nate raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, Sir?”
“You’ll go far in this bank, Nate, don’t worry. I see a great future ahead of you. Just keep your chin up.”
“Uh, thank you, sir.”
“You’re making good money and you have job security, son,” his boss said, stepping out of the office. “It’s the American Dream, and you’re living it.”
“I, I guess so. Thank you again, Sir.”
Nate closed the door and walked back to his desk. He picked up the baseball and studied the thick scrawl between the laces. Setting the ball back down, he stepped around the desk and sat down. “Why is it that the very thought of that scares me?” he asked the empty room.
* * *
Three hours later he had come no closer to an answer. He stood at the front of the audio/video store Vince co-owned with his uncle, staring blankly at a widescreen LED TV.
“You like that one, Nate?” Keith, one of the sales guys, asked.
“I guess so, Keith,” Nate responded without looking away from the set. “But I’m not really in the market for a new television.”
“Why not? You can buy yourself a big new house. Plenty of room for a big TV, surround sound, the works. I know you’re good for it. Besides,” he slapped Nate on the back, “You’re going to need extra space soon enough, anyway. Might as well stake your claim.”
Nate sometimes wondered if Keith was his best friend, not Vince. They had many conversations while waiting for Vince to free himself from whatever task he was at hand. Keith actually knew a few things Nate hadn’t told Vince, like the fact that he was considering proposing. It had slipped out a week earlier, during another lunchtime conversation. Nate had covered as best he could. Ever the salesman, the other man hadn’t commented, but Nate knew he had picked up on it.
“No,” Nate shot Keith an annoyed look, “I don’t have enough space for a big television right now. There’s no sense in putting one in my apartment.”
“So go buy yourself a big house,” Vince said, coming up from. “You can use all that money you’ve been saving by not going to ball games.”
Nate turned around. “What is this, some sort of conspiracy to spend my money for me?”
“We’re just keeping your best interests in mind,” Keith said, slapping him on the shoulder.
Vince smiled. “He’s absolutely right. Buy yourself a system. Get a 70” TV, surround sound, subwoofers big enough to knock down walls. You know you want to.”
“Well,” Nate shrugged, “I suppose I could. But what’s the point?”
“You’re a strange man,” Vince replied, shaking his head, “Can’t even come up with a reason to buy a really big TV. It’s, it’s…un-American.”
“Not that you have any stake in the matter, what with you being in the business and all.”
“I suppose,” Vince stroked his chin speculatively, “That it is possible for me to benefit financially from just such an arrangement.” He raised his eyebrows, then laughed loudly. “Nah. Do what you want. But let’s get going. I’m hungry.”
They left the store and headed down the block toward the corner deli they often visited at lunch time. Nate walked in silence, staring straight ahead. Vince didn’t attempt to get him to speak until after they found a table in the crowded deli and sat down with their sandwiches.
“So what’s up, buddy?” Vince asked. “You look like you’re having a bad day.”
“When I got in to work today my boss was waiting for me in my office.”
“Uh oh. Was it bad?”
“You get fired?”
Vince offered a puzzled look. “Sued? It’s not sexual harassment, is it?”
“Worse.” Nate shook his head. “I was told that I have a bright future at the bank.”
* * *
Vince stared at his friend in silence for several long moments. “What?” he asked, obviously unable to figure out where, exactly, there was a problem. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
Nate shrugged. “I suppose it should be. I’m just terrified that the rest of my life will be six day work weeks with no days off and no stopping.”
“It will get better.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Well, if you don’t want my any reassurance, I could always tell you how much it will cost you to send your kids to college. It always kept my dad motivated, you know.”
Vince took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “I talked to Julia a few days ago,” he said after swallowing, “She told me something interesting.”
“Why were you talking to Julia?”
“I was trying to reach you and your cell phone was off, because you apparently only know how to do that when your office isn’t going to ruin my day. Now do you want to hear what I have to say or do you want to ask questions?”
“Thank you,” Vince smiled and offered an exaggerated nod. “I will. Anyway, she told me the thing she loves most about you is that you always do the responsible thing. She says that she can always trust you to make the choices that will turn out for the best for the most people.”
“I suppose that’s a good thing,” Nate agreed, shrugging. “Especially after what happened with her father.”
“So I’m the responsible, reliable one. And that’s a good thing.”
“Hey, we’re not in high school anymore. Being a grown-up is actually an advantage.”
“You really think so?”
“Does what I think matter?”
“I’m asking you, aren’t I?”
“I suppose so.” Vince paused. “I’ve known you for a long time, and you’ve always done the right thing,” he finally said. “I used to think it made you boring, but now I think it’s a good thing.”
“But I’m still boring?”
“No,” Vince shook his head, “Not at all. Back in high school you were boring. Now you’re a responsible, mature man. Like I said, it’s a good thing. Chicks dig it.”
Nate chewed on the thought for a moment. After a moment he nodded. “Okay. I’ll buy that.”
“When are you going to take the next step?”
“What next step?”
“You know. The big ‘M.'”
Nate laughed. “So that’s what we’re calling it these days?”
“Gotta have a euphemism, my friend. Life’s not worth living if you have to refer to something by its proper name.” Vince chuckled. “But that’s not important. What’s important is that you’re stalling.”
“Okay,” Nate shook his head, “I guess I can tell you. I bought a ring last week. I’ll probably propose next weekend when she gets back from Indianapolis.”
“Nice.” Vince smiled broadly. “I’m really happy for you.”
“So, now that we’ve gotten that taken care of,” Vince smiled, “Let’s talk about something really important.”
Nate laughed. “I think I can handle that.”
* * *
Nate stepped off of the elevator in high spirits. His lunch with Vince had taken a lot of the edge off of his thoughts from the past couple days and he felt refreshed, ready to get back to business. As he walked around the floor on his way to his office he almost started whistling, but decided it would be a bad idea.
“Anybody call, Margaret?” he asked his assistant as he reached his office.
“Julia called. She wants you to call back right away.”
He opened the door to his office and closed it behind him. Stepping around his desk he picked up his phone and dialed Julia’s cell number before sitting down.
The phone rang twice before a familiar voice crackled across the line. “Hey, you.”
“What’s up, Jules?” Nate asked, using one of the pet names he had given her.
“Just called to let you know I made it to Indianapolis safely.”
“Why didn’t you call my cell?”
“I tried. It went straight to voice mail.”
Nate smacked himself in the forehead. “Why can’t it ever do that when I’m at a baseball game?”
“I have no idea.”
“Hmm,” Nate shook his head, attempting to stop the dark thoughts from re-forming in his mind. “So how’s everything down there?”
“Don’t really know yet. They just gave me a big pile of paperwork to look through.”
“So it’s not going to be fun?”
“No. They really screwed something up here.”
Nate reached over to his computer and grabbed the mouse. As the screensaver shut off he saw he had three new messages. He opened the first one while attempting to keep up with his soon to be fiancee. “How long do you think it’s going to take you to fix it?”
“Don’t know. I’m afraid it might take longer than the original week they have me down here for.”
“Huh,” Nate responded, only half paying attention. The email had drawn all of his attention. It was an auto alert he’d set for old Cadillacs. A 1958 Cadillac Eldorado was for sale out in Elburn, a town about forty miles outside Chicago. The car was bright red and in mint condition, the car of his dreams.
“What are you doing?” Julia asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You suddenly stopped paying attention to me. Something’s going on.”
“I think I’m going to buy a car.”
“Oh.” Her disappointment was clear, even over the phone. “Not this again.”
“What? It’s a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado. Fire engine red with all the options. It’s the car I’ve wanted for years.”
“Where is it?”
“That’s pretty close. It will be harder for me to keep you from buying it.”
“You don’t sound happy.”
“Well, I’ve always wanted a car like that. And one is available.”
“But we’ve talked about this. It’s so…so juvenile. Shouldn’t you be saving your money to buy a house and do grown up things?”
“It’s not like I can’t afford both.”
“That’s beside the point. What if you lose your job tomorrow? How are you going to pay your bills if you blow all your money on a car?”
“Okay,” Nate sighed, closing the email and putting it in his trash folder. “I guess you’re right.”
“We can worry about that later,” she said in a sympathetic tone. “Just promise me you won’t do anything silly right now. Remember, there will always be cars.”
“I said I was okay with it.”
“Good.” Something shifted on her end and he heard another voice in the background. “Sorry,” she said after a moment, “I’ve got to go.”
“Love you, too.”
Nate hung up the phone and stared at the picture of a Cadillac he used as wallpaper on his computer. “Cars like that don’t come around every day,” he told the screen. He sighed. “But I’m sure I’ll be able to find one when the time is right.”
A light knock on his door startled him. “Yeah,” he called to whomever was on the other side. “Come on in.”
The door opened and his boss stepped through. “Had a question I needed to ask you, Nate.”
“Remember the –” the other man stopped and gave him a quizzical look. “Are you feeling okay?”
“You don’t look so good.”
“Just tired, I guess.”
“Well, you’ve been working pretty hard lately.”
“Is there anything wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Nate shrugged. “I guess my life just hasn’t gone the way I expected it to lately.”
“Are you having problems?”
* * *
“More like unmet expectations,” Nate said without stopping to think if the response was a good idea. “I mean, I haven’t had a day off in like five months. And now I just learned that the car of my dreams is for sale in Elburn and Julia won’t let me get it.”
“Wait,” his boss raised an eyebrow, “You haven’t had a day off in five months?”
“Nope. Haven’t taken any personal days and it seems like I have to handle something every Saturday.”
“Well, I can’t help you with you woman troubles, but I can tell you to take the afternoon off.”
“Can’t,” Nate shook his head, “I have too much to do.”
“You can and you will. And if you want to take the day off tomorrow, let me know. Everything will still be here on Wednesday.”
His boss nodded. “I insist.”
Nate smiled. “Thanks.”
The older man turned to leave. He got to the doorway and stopped. “By the way,” he made a half turn back, “About the car.”
“What kind is it?”
“A 1958 Cadillac Eldorado.”
“Wow,” he nodded appreciatively, “I wouldn’t expect that from someone your age.”
Nate thought about telling him why he’d wanted a classic Cadillac since he was a small child but decided against it. “It’s a long story, sir.”
“A car like that is a rarity, Nate. If you can afford it, buy it.” He paused. “It’s not like you and Julia are married or anything. She can’t tell you what to do with your money quite yet.”
Nate sighed. “It’s, well, it’s kind of complicated right now.”
A look of recognition crossed his boss’s face. “So you’re about to take the plunge?”
“Oh, and sorry about the car. You’re on your own with that one.”
* * *
An hour and a half later Nate stepped off the train and walked across the commuter lot to his car. As he approached the Acura TL he had purchased shortly after getting his job at the bank he could not help but compare it to the Cadillac he so desperately wanted. It was a nice car, yes, but it wasn’t a classic. No one rode on the back of an Acura in the Fourth of July parade, after all.
He reached the car and got in. He opened the center console and picked up a small, black felt box, held it up and flipped it open. The engagement ring he planned to give Julia sparkled in the sunlight. He pulled it out of the box and carefully examined the diamond and its setting.
He kept a picture of Julia in the vanity mirror on the passenger side. Flipping down the visor, he grabbed the picture and held it up behind the ring.
They were both in the picture, standing in front of his parents’ old couch downstairs. His mother had snapped the shot the first time he took Julia home to meet his parents. She was tall, athletic, and blonde. In the picture she was laughing, her full lips spread out into a smile that lit up her bright, blue eyes and made the features of her heart-shaped face shine. He stood behind her, his right arm wrapped around her waist, face drawn up into a smile identical to the one in so many pictures his mother had taken of him as a child when he brought some treasure he had found in the yard or the woods back home. His parent’s had always called it the “look what I found” smile. They were apparently unwilling to call it what it really was: a shit-eating grin.
Now he could only sit back and wonder whether or not he had actually gotten shit.
He put the picture back and looked at the ring. “How much are you going to cost me?” he asked it, “My dog, my car, my dreams?”
The ring didn’t answer. He put it back in the center console and started his car. A wild thought flew across his mind and he knew he had only one real choice if he wanted to escape the noose tightening around his life.
He had some packing to do.