Oyster Boy Review 19  
  Fall 2010
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» Levee 67


The Least Among Us

Michael Charlton

The chick in the beat-up Civic was taking forever. Three or four cars had completed their transactions in the line next to ours, and her 'Get Off My Ass!' bumper sticker was starting to grate. Cut me some slack here. This was late June, the temperature simmering at eighty-four degrees at nine-thirty in the morning. Worse, I had lost a killer, make-or-break account the day before.

The heartbreaker in question involved one of the largest privately owned trucking firms in the country, Vero Freight, which is headquartered downstate. I was working with one Don Vero, the seventy-three year old son of George Vero, the company founder. Old Don is somewhat of a figurehead, but he's a figurehead with the authority to sign. Vero were in the market to replace one hundred and seventy-two trailers, ranging in size from twenty-eight to fifty-four feet. Not cabs mind you, where the real dough is, but still one hundred and seventy-two trailers is one hundred seventy-two trailers. Plus, the account was virginal. We had no existing business with them, which meant higher commission points for yours truly, not to mention the added job security that new clients bring.

Anyway, I've got contract in hand. I've run the thing by Legal, cleared the numbers with company brass, covered my ass with Distribution, haggled over warranties with Service, etc., etc. All I'm thinking is Hancock. Just pick up that Mont Blanc, Donny boy, and save my freaking year.

That's when Jr. walked in, Don's son, who goes by his middle name and runs Vero's finances. Dude looks like he was bullied mercilessly as a kid, but as far as I'm concerned he's El Diablo.

"There he is," I say, practically jumping out of my chair. "How's the back nine treating you, Marc?"

He offers a limp hand, his face dire. "How are you, Gerry."

"Fine. Just enjoying all the amenities that sunny Springfield has to offer."

"Good," he says before turning to his father. "Dad, you and I need to have a word about this. Gerry, if you'll excuse us from a moment."

"Sure. No problem. I'll just boot up and check email while I wait. By the way," I say as he steers the old man out the door. "How is the golf game coming, Marc?"

"Golf?" he deadpans. "I haven't had that luxury in over a year."

I knew I was fucked then and there. I kept the contract out, but it didn't take a crystal ball to foresee the future. Marc would return sans dad, let me down easy but hold firm to 'their' decision to take a pass. Which is exactly what happened. Like they had scripted it beforehand. Even to the point where they wheeled the old man into a dark closet.

"Gerry, we're going to have put this off for now. You know, expenditures," Marc says upon returning. "We're feeling this economy like everyone else."

"Of course. Don't I know it. But hey, nothing to do with cost or contract, is it? Can't make any guarantees, but I might have a little elbow room to negotiate if you tell me how we get this deal done. You know me, Marc. I want what's best for family Vero. That's all I'm about."

"Like I said, Gerry, we're going to have put this off for now. We'll keep in touch."

But we won't keep in touch—it's over—and that's just some of the baggage I was carrying that morning I was stuck behind the chick at the ATM. I was hung-over too. Eight months into my second divorce and eating Stouffer's or carryout every night. Heat waves wiggled off the asphalt like sperm.

Guess you could say I snapped a little. Laid on the horn and stuck my head out the window to shout a few choice words at her—something along the lines of hurry it the fuck up. The second time I honked she turned and flipped me off. Nice.

I got a glimpse of her then—lank blond hair, thin, pale face—but otherwise she was as anonymous as a blade of grass. When she finally finished, she yelled, "Fuck you!" and then screeched out of the lot. Can't say I felt too remorseful about it. Some people in this world need a little shove now and again. How was I to know where it would lead.

See, she must have followed me home. You know, made note of where I parked, scribbled down my license plate, saw my telltale S.I.U. decal in the rear window. I was driving a silver A4 back then—cherry but not without her downside—namely, the monthly gouge strip-mined from my checking account. Actually, I could have laid down serious coin on her at point of purchase but decided to ride the wave of the market instead. That was the plan. Then everything went to hell in a hand basket. Shrub came into office and fucked the dog. You know, donned his flyboy jumper and strutted around that aircraft carrier like he had just discovered Viagra. Funny thing is I voted for the jamoke. I got caught up in all that family values nonsense. You know, saw Clinton as a dissembling cheat and turned my back on the good times. But hey, at least I finally saw the light. There were guys in the office still popping a boner over fireman and cops and blaming everything on 9/11. The Super Patriots, I called them. Guys who thought any sign of protest was worthy of a one-way ticket to Guantanamo. I'm registered as an Independent myself, but the pachyderms are the worst. By the time '04 rolled around Kerry seemed like the second coming of Lincoln.

But back to the chick. I literally forgot about her, and by the following week I was manning the phones and groveling for two-bit shit I wouldn't have bothered to piss on during Slick Willie's tenure. And my boss wants to know what happened at Vero. El Diablo, I tell him. Figures, he says, I knew that guy would screw us. I tell him about expenditures, Jr.'s excuse. Could be, he replies. I hear he's trying to unload it, waiting for the old man to be declared legally dead so he can sell it to Yellow or Consolidated. No offense, he tells me, but I always thought that thing was a bit of a pipedream.

Killed me about my boss. Dude was a walking encyclopedia of boardroom gossip but never shared until our asses had been kicked to the curb. Like we were supposed to be learning the facts of life out there. Whatever. At least he didn't ride herd on me about my numbers, though he did inform me that corporate was crawling up his ass about travel. Something about how every report was being run up the flagpole for inspection. We might be dropping American, he says. Great, I'm thinking. That's all I need right now. The cattle call that is Southwest.

So it's the following week, a Thursday morning if memory serves, the climate of Greater Chicago still impersonating Dubai's. I had nothing big on the agenda, though I had scheduled a desperate house call to some outfit in Dayton for the following Monday, a feel-good visit suggested by my boss which I knew would result in jack—so much for discretionary travel. Anyway, it would be a light day at the office. I'd hit the Starbucks for an iced latte on the way in, update some entries on Siebel, put in a few worthless calls and take a late lunch from which I would not return. That's what I was thinking that morning when I walked out to the Audi.

I barely noticed it at first. Something not looking quite right about the hood. A scratch or something. A dark line or two showing. At first I thought it might be some twigs from a branch, even though the nearest tree was fifty yards off.

Then I stepped around the front bumper.

What can I tell you? That the words "Jesus Christ" hissed from my lips? That a "Fucking shit!" soon followed? I know it's a cliché, but I felt personally violated, my stomach rejecting what my eyes were offering my brain.

Someone had scratched the word COCK deep into the hood, all the way down to the metal. Two foot high letters that were slanted and razor-like, as if scrawled by some child possessed. Just a single word—COCK—and it was like a bad year's worth of vultures had come home to roost.

Later, I would imagine co-workers gathering around my car at lunch, sharing a few knowing smirks, snickering, even guffawing. The word made the accusation unanswerable and therefore, I suppose, true. One could easily conclude that I had done something to deserve it. My only solace was that it couldn't be seen while I drove. That was the extent of the silver linings.

The funny thing is I didn't hit upon the ATM chick right away when thinking of potential suspects. Instead, I focused on some clown from my complex, a guy with whom I had exchanged a heated word a couple of months back over a parking space. He was black to boot. Pulling down 90k a year as a junior accountant for GE Financial but still blasting that gangsta rap shit like it's the Robert Taylor Homes. I filed a report with Arlington Heights' finest and none-too subtly made mention of him, but you could tell the cop wasn't biting. Not that I blamed him. The report was a dead end. Basically you're filing to placate your conscience.

If we hear anything, the cop says, we'll give you a call.

Right, I'm thinking. About as likely as Jr. calling me.

But I have to give that black dude some cred. He never impressed me as the type who'd shy from confrontation. If he had a problem, he'd have brought it straight to my door. So what did that leave? Kids? Teenagers? Suburban punks stoned on weed and bored with video games? Actually, that scenario was easier to swallow. It was the idea of some adult lacking the onions to approach me that was most unsettling. Hell, I'd been a little shit myself once and knew all about the mindlessness of vandalism. You know, random acts directed as much at the object as the owner. Don't get me wrong. I would've wrung their necks, but in the end I could deal with it. It was the thought of someone out there with a personal vendetta that filled me with unease and the feeling of being exposed.

That's when I hit upon the chick. I was un-spooling every possible slight or insult I had directed at a person in the last six months when she enters the frame. Of course! Piece of white trash like that probably has nothing better to do than sit around and let her anger fester. Probably the sight of the Audi set her off too. If I had driven a beater like hers, I might've escaped her wrath. She probably saw in me everything she hates in the world. You know, every job she's been turned down from. Every guy who's fucked her over. Every person who's cut her off in traffic.

But for the life of me I couldn't picture her. Yeah, I know—the blond, lank hair; the thin, pale face—but my memory isn't exactly photographic. I remembered the car, an old Civic, but what color? I was thinking brown or tan or something.

Then, about an hour later, it dawned on me. The bumper sticker. 'Get off My Ass!'

You probably know where this is headed. Yep, I see her. No smoke. And considering there are sixty thousand other suburbanites living in my neck of the woods, no small coincidence either.

Anyway, it was at the local Target, roughly a week and a half after I had filed that useless report. I had been picking up some toiletries one night when I spotted a rust-colored Civic parked next to a shopping cart pen. The rear bumper was hidden from view so I walked over to have a closer look, taking in a few details along the way—the dream catcher hanging from the rearview, a broken side-view mirror splintering reflections, one of the tires a chalked-up spare.

Then, standing directly behind the thing, I see the chick's finger to the world. 'Get Off My Ass!'

I practically jogged back to the Audi where, giddy with discovery, I jotted down her plate number. Then I waited, figuring I'd tail her home, give officer so-and-so a call the next morning, bust the case wide open. All I had to do was wait. Which is what I did. Waited . . . and waited . . . and waited.

It's freaking Target, I remember thinking. You get your shit and get out. But no, not this chick. This was her Macy's. Hence, ten minutes became fifteen, fifteen twenty, twenty twenty-five, etc., etc. Finally, at the forty-five minute mark I could sit no longer and went inside.

What would the cops have done anyway? Without witnesses or evidence, it would be my word against hers. Flat denial would be her best defense. Air-tight at that.

But that didn't throw me off her scent. I wanted a good look at her. So I picked up my items in shopping spree-fashion, walking swiftly to checkout in case she should be finishing as well. But she was but an idea and apparently capable of vanishing into thin air in a department store. I had about given her up as a lost cause when, four lanes over, I see this scrawny little blond in a red smock scanning bar codes. That's right. She's a cashier. She works at the local Target.

This was re-confirmed once the store closed.

Man, I was some detective back then. It was pretty crazy. I even followed her home a few times after that first night and grew semi-attracted to her in a predator/prey sort of way. Yeah, she was scrawny, but she was the type of flat-chested girl you could imagine yowling like a cat. At least I could.

But it was no time to jerk the Johnson. I had to focus on the reconnaissance. I despised her anyway. Remember?

Turns out Ms. Civic lived in one of those charm-less apartment complexes, circa 1970, that the most downtrodden of our suburb inhabit. Lots of manila-colored brick and aluminum-framed windows. Feather Run, it was called. A place going to seed. Half of its occupants being poor Mexicans who, judging from the size of their broods, had never learned to unroll a Trojan.

By then I'd had the Audi worked on, eighteen hundred bucks, five hundred of which flew from my own wallet. (Don't get me started on insurance companies—the biggest racket in the world.) But the body shop did a decent job. I even took it to one of those self-wash joints with the power spray guns to make sure the paint held. You know, pointed the nozzle two inches from the surface to see if it would bubble or flake, the water pressure inducing neither.

Still, it wasn't like I forgot what she had done. I wasn't chewing glass exactly, but I wasn't bygones-be-bygones either. Simple fact is I wanted justice. Even if it required a little vigilanteism.

So what to do? Well, the obvious thing was to return the favor. Do a little hieroglyphics on her own ride. But the problem was the ride itself. Defacing a beater like hers would be an exercise in redundancy. Sure, the word CUNT might sting, but in the end her wheels were more about transportation than the status symbol I made no bones about driving.

Plus, something that obvious would invite retaliation. A war I was sure to lose. I needed to be more imaginative, more devious. Give it time, I thought. It will come.

Meanwhile, I tried focusing on work. Not that there was much of it. Don Vero had dropped off the face of the earth, and I had even put in a humiliating call to El Diablo's admin, a forwarded message that went—surprise—unreturned. And that trip to Dayton resulted in the zip I knew it would, though I did spend a couple of enjoyable hours in a titty bar near the airport. Oh, and did I mention that two of my recurring orders were being scaled back as well? Yep, expenditures cited in both cases. So there I was, fifty percent under my target with no Hail Mary's in sight. Where was that hound dog from Hope when you needed him most?

It was while I was checking out the local talent at Champ's one night that I hit upon the idea of pouring sugar in her gas tank. Can you say major engine block trouble? It must have been an act of sabotage I had learned in my youth. Not that I had ever done it myself, but man, what a brainstorm. I hardly even checked out tail the rest of the night. No smoke. Probably the first and only time I sat in that cheese-ball place and not felt an overriding need to get laid. My mind was that pre-occupied. I just drank and thought. Thought and drank.

You're probably wondering if I realized I was stepping over the line here. I did. Destruction of property, public or private, is a criminal offense. I get nabbed, I'm spending a night in a holding cell, as well as eating a hefty fine. Besides which, who knows what kind of violent thugs she counted among her family and friends. Still, I wasn't to be deterred. The plan was too brilliant, the scheme too seductive. Hell, I even had righteousness on my side. Caution could suck my dick.

Plus, I'd be doing society a favor. A community service, if you will. Laugh all you want, but the sooner a person like that learns her lesson the better off we all are.

So I bought the sugar the next day, Domino's granulated, as well as a long-stemmed funnel from the local AutoZone. Then for two nights straight I cased Feather Run. You know, got the lay of the land, discovered where she parked, decided from which direction it would be best to approach her car, scouted the other tenants' comings and goings.

I decided the deed would best be done in the wee hours on a weekday, figuring it would limit the chances of one of her neighbors stumbling home late from the bar. (Those Mexicans, after all, love their Cuervo.) Then I checked off a laundry list of the items I'd need. Not only the sugar and funnel but a couple gallons of water, a pair of gloves, a baseball cap and dark, non-descript clothing. Never once did I take a step back and say, "Hey, Gerry. What the fuck?" Payback had blinded me to reality checks. Payback was my reality.

The only thing that gave me pause was the Audi. If someone got a good look at her I'd be hosed. I could see it now. A couple of officers showing up late at the office one afternoon. My boss giving me the hairy eye as they questioned me in one of the conference rooms. Word filtering back to him about the nature of their visit. Me being frog-marched out the building in handcuffs. An ignominious end to an inglorious career.

Ultimately, I decided it was worth the risk. The idea of revenge was too intoxicating. My only wish was that I had never filed that report.

So there I was. Roughly six weeks after that morning at the ATM I'm at Feather Run. Technically, it was a Wednesday morning—3:30 AM—though I have a hard time calling anything morning that falls between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Anyway, I took a single lap around the perimeter of the complex and then parked near the front entrance, not wishing the Audi to be anywhere near Miss Get Off My Ass's heap, which as usual was parked around back. A few lights glowed from a couple of insomniac's units. Otherwise, it was Silent Night, Holy Night. Just me and the last of the summer's crickets. That and a half-hundred air-conditioners dripping and rattling in unison.

It was kind of spooky—knowing what I was going to do. I felt lawless and disturbed, like those moments late at night when I would come across a TV documentary on a serial killer and wonder what depravity lurked in the darkest corners of my own mind if anything in there ever snapped. Inside the apartments women and children slept. Outside, a man with dark gloves was preparing to commit a crime. For a few moments I considered bailing—just go home and put the sugar in a cabinet and throw the funnel in the trunk. But I felt too committed to turn back. So I pulled the ball cap down over my eyes and hefted the twines of the shopping bag that contained my tools. Then I grabbed the two jugs of water from the floor, and checking the windows of the lit-up units one last time, stepped out of the car.

Never was I more grateful for European engineering than when I gently shut the passenger door and the Audi replied with a soft, barely audible cluck. Pure pussy, I remember the salesman telling me when I commented on her smoothness. God knows those sharks had Ph.D.'s in it.

Anyway, I used the sidewalks to limit exposure and walked at a quick clip. The parking lot was lit up, but we're not talking a prison yard full of floodlights. Still, I couldn't shake the fear of being watched, and as I went around the corner of the complex I swore the muffled sounds of the Home Shopping Network were seeping out of someone's window.

Luckily, no insomniacs resided in the rear units and the chick's Civic was parked between two cars, which would provide ample cover. After taking one last furtive glance of my surroundings I crouched next to the rear wheel and began to unpack my goods. The car smelled of rust and grime, even a faint singe of electricity. The rear tire smelled like dirty tire. I ripped open the bags of sugar and unscrewed the jugs of water. Then I flipped open the cover of her gas cap, unscrewed the cap, and situated the funnel in the gas reciprocal.

The entire process took about seven or eight minutes. The sugar backed up but the water worked like Drano. I began to perspire but stayed focused, and soon I had three empty bags, two empty jugs and a relatively spotless funnel. I screwed the gas cap back on. Then I flipped closed the cover. When I rose from my crouch I felt light-headed, but it was momentary, and after taking one last look around, I headed back to the Audi.

Did someone see me? Doubtful, but that didn't stop my heart from trembling like a rabbit's, and when I finally reached the leather interior of the Audi, I felt like a child who had made it safely through a dark stretch of woods. Then I turned the ignition—my baby still purring as if she had just rolled off the assembly line—and dropped her into Drive.

Two blocks later I even let out a scream—pure adrenaline, pure relief—probably not unlike the one I would have emitted driving home from Vero that day had I closed the deal.

Mission Accomplished, Dubya would say.

Those were some bad times back then. Layoffs happened at such an alarming rate that entire office buildings were seemingly abandoned overnight, For Sale or For Lease signs popping up like dandelions along side of our suburbs' industrial parkways, its commercial development having once been the subject of a glowing front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. Of course my own office wasn't immune to the potential for bloodletting. Rumors flew around the halls like birds trapped inside a building and no one felt safe. We were staring at our third shitty quarter in a row and everyone knew corporate would have to satiate the shareholders. I didn't smell the axe personally, but my boss wasn't clapping my shoulder and tossing me compliments either. And he was staying late at the office every night, holed up with some other senior management types in a conference room to which only they had the key. Re-org meetings. They even taped the windows with sheets of white paper so the lackeys couldn't snoop. My only consolation was that Sales was usually the last department hit—Marketing always walks the plank first, with the other support groups to follow.

And the chick? Yeah I thought about her, but after the first week my fear of reprisal subsided. The odds were long that she would ever learn why her valves and pistons froze shut. Not that such reasoning stopped me from rising twice in the middle of the night to take a look at the Audi. The second night I even threw on a pair of shorts and walked outside for closer inspection. No one was around. Not a soul. Her hood shone like the buffed armor of a museum piece.

So tit for tat leave it at that. Time to move on. I could live with myself. Or at least I thought I could; that is, until I opened my big, fat mouth.

It happened at a Cubs game, a Friday afternoon tilt with the Reds for which my buddy Paul, a fellow Saluki who works the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, had snagged a pair of bleachers. It was gorgeous day in late August. The heat wave having finally relented. The sky beach ball blue and fit for a Shuttle launch. All the north side chickies sporting halter-tops and shorty shorts. Yum.

Anyway, Paul and I hit Murphy's afterward, the "W" flag visible from where we stood on Waveland. I might even get lucky tonight, I thought. Find some little trixie looking for shits and giggles. An empty life, I know, but there ain't nothing like a one-night stand.

And that's when I told Paul about the chick. I don't know why I did—the Old Styles, I guess, or maybe the need to unload, the shock value of a good story. But tell him I did. Right down to the part involving the sugar and her gas tank.

He was amused as hell but you could tell he thought I was crazy, which kind of put me on the defensive.

"You could get thrown in jail for that," he says, as if I were unaware of the repercussions.

Then he starts asking me questions, like if I've followed up on the chick. You know, checked in on her at the Target, driven by her complex, seen if her car's still up and running. He grinned devilishly.

"You could've ruined her life," he tells me. "Poor girl like that probably doesn't have two pennies to rub together."

"Hey, what comes around goes around."

"Yeah, but what if she didn't do it?"

"What do you mean 'if she didn't do it?' She did it. She's the only one that could have."

He shook his head, still grinning. "I don't know. Seems like an awfully big leap of faith to me. That's why we have a judicial system in this country, Gerard. To keep hotheads like you from forming lynch mobs."

"Well, it's done now."

"Yeah," he said with a wink. "The poor thing."

It was meant it in jest, of course—the good-natured ribbing of an old friend—but man it dragged me down. Suddenly, the specter of guilt loomed. Suddenly, the idea that my actions could have unforeseen consequences was a possibility. Suddenly, the righteousness of revenge seemed far-off and foreign. Pointless.

And Paul wouldn't let it rest. He even brought it up after we re-convened at an Irish pub in the Lakewood neighborhood. Like he couldn't resist seeing my ass squirm.

"She's probably sleeping under a bridge," he said as we puffed on a pair of Cristo's while seated at the bar. "Probably holds up a sign that says, 'Out of work. Need help.' Probably rattles a tin cup all day."

"I hear ya."

"Either that or it led to some abuse on the home front. You know, her boyfriend's car. Some sawed-off little guy with a short fuse and the brain of a tick. Been swatting her around the apartment ever since."

He grinned and tapped my arm. "Hey, I'm just kidding ya, bud."

But the damage was done. My night was ruined. I couldn't even enjoy the start of a three-day weekend or work up the energy to hustle one of the young fillies trotting about the neighborhood. An hour and a half later I was slumped in the backseat of a cab, heading back to the sterility of the suburbs, catching a final glimpse of Paul who was doing shots with the hot little item who tended bar. The Little Lolita, we called her. Half the reason we frequented that joint.

And my new-found guilt didn't take any days off, either. Even at work the next week when the layoff rumors reached a feverish pitch and my mind should have been elsewhere. I even had a dream about Miss Civic. Turns out she was my boss's admin and had filed a sexual harassment suit against me. Except by dream's end she wasn't Miss Civic but El Diablo and I was washing his or her car before I was to appear before the head of H.R., who was played by Don Vero but halfway through turned into my boss. You know how kooky dreams are.

Anyway, people weren't getting a damn thing done at the office, just a lot of standing around and speculating on shit they had no control over. The more audacious types surfed Monster at lunch and cut out early. Some didn't even bother coming in. What are you going to do? Combating feelings of helplessness is never easy.

Oh, well. It's not like Sales doesn't teach you to handle rejection. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. That was my philosophy. You know, cross the bridge after we've paid the toll.

Still, it's not like I was ignorant of my standing. There were some account execs eating larger buckets of dust than I, but I wasn't top dog either. The thing that I had going for me was loyalty. I had stuck with the company when a bunch of hotshots had jumped ship to startups with dreams of IPO dancing in their heads. I ran into a few of those clowns afterward. They were always on their second or third job but didn't regret leaving. Not for a minute. Me? I knew better.

But that damn chick. Man, after that day at Wrigley I couldn't stop thinking about her. What if Paul were right? What if I had fucked up her life? What if her boyfriend had slapped her around? What if she was sleeping on concrete? Foolish thinking, I know, but that Civic of hers was toast. Engine block trouble on a beater like that guarantees internment at the junkyard. At best, the thing could be cannibalized for parts.

And I started seeing her in other people too. Like the young mother who indeed stands at an intersection off the Kennedy each morning with a tattered cardboard sign that read "Mother of Three. Out of Work. Needs Food." I even rolled down my window one day and handed her twenty penitential bucks. Cowardly amends, I know, but there you are.

Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and drove to the Target one night. Actually, I went two nights, and after seeing neither hair nor hide of her the first night, inquired about her the second. A risky move but I had to know. The thought that I had given this chick a final, fatal nudge into the pit of poverty was cutting into my sleep. I felt responsible for her bony ass.

Still, I hedged my bets by speaking to an older Asian woman working one of the registers rather than the store manager who might be more attuned to a fellow native's ulterior motives. The Asian woman's English was spotty, but at least no one else was in line.

"Blond hair," I said, attempting to describe her. "Skinny. Pale. A younger girl. Maybe late twenties."

The woman shook her head, seeming not to understand.

"She drove a Civic. A Honda. An older model. Had a bumper sticker that said 'Get off My Ass.'"

"Oh, Jessie!" the Asian woman said, smiling. "You mean Jessie."

"Yes, Jessie."

She shook her head, the smile having gone on permanent hiatus. "Jessie no longer work here. She have many troubles. Not good."

"Huh?" I grunted just as some soccer mom pushed her cart into our aisle. "What happened?" I asked as the Asian woman handed me my receipt.

"Many troubles," she said then turned to smile at Mrs. Minivan. "Hello. You find everything okay?"

This all went down some years back. As it turned out I got the pink slip too, joining the hundreds of thousands of others who lost their jobs during those Fair and Balanced times. Black Friday, we called it. Corporate deciding to cut fifteen percent of its work force and re-org all of Sales in the process. My boss's boss even got hit, as did a national VP who heretofore had been a darling of the Board. But that's how it always is, isn't it? The ruling class always has to eat one of its own. Otherwise, the commoners might storm the castle.

Of course it was my boss who informed me of my fate. Mighty white of him, but at least he didn't take pleasure in delivering the news. Said his decision wasn't totally reflective of my performance. That if I ever needed a recommendation not to hesitate asking and that he would put out some feelers and send anything he heard my way. Gerry, you were a good road warrior, he told me. It's just the nature of the beast right now. Lots of fine people will be walking out of here with you today.

Big whup, I thought, but at least he showed some class, and he even helped me carry out a box of my stuff to the Audi where his eyes misted over when we shook hands a final time. I got the package too. A little parachute of two months pay with some back commission tied to the end of it. My stock options were for shit, but that revelation was hardly new. I should have unloaded the bastards a year earlier, but so should have hundreds of others.

Want to know the funny thing? I got laid that night. No smoke. My first piece of tail in months. Rhonda: the prototypical big-haired suburban chick with a body courtesy of Bally's. She was at Champs with—get this—her mom. At least for half the night. Then mums split and left us youngsters to contemplate the stars for ourselves. Talk about your tigresses. Rhonda knew a porn star's worth of positions, and even had a bottle of K-Y sitting atop her nightstand. The little minx.

Anyway, we saw each other afterward but I could tell she was holding out for greener pastures. Not that I blamed her. We had both been around the block long enough to know the score. No use kidding yourself that you're still in your twenties and love will conquer all.

But man, Jessie. I couldn't shake her. She was like the Ghost of Christmas Past or something. Like a high school sweetheart who broke your heart and haunts you into the Alzheimer years. I even drove over to Feather Run a couple of times, idling through the parking lot, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, smiling at los amigos so they wouldn't think I was from Immigration. But what I would do if I saw her? Confess my crime? Take her to dinner? Offer to buy her a new beater? Date her? Fall in love?

Jessie. I had to learn her name, didn't I? As if she didn't have a large enough place in my conscience already.

Anyway, jobs were scarce and I was watching my 401k plummet like one of those radical skiers off a snow-bound cliff. I was certifying too. Yep, the Illinois Department of Employment. Not exactly a proud moment in my life but there it is. And as much as I bellyached about that heat wave, I was longing for it by mid-December, especially once the sun began nodding off at four in the afternoon and I had spent another useless day perusing the Internet. Soon I would be forced to trade in the Audi, and some nights I found myself wishing that Rhonda dug me more than she did. Maybe I was a cock after all. Maybe any woman with a clue could sense it.

But this story has a final twist. One that confirmed my worst fears and inspired me to make weekly donations to that woman who, to this day, stands at the intersection off the expressway.

It was the black dude at my complex. Right around New Year's his pimped-up Acura was vandalized, the word DICK scrawled across the hood. No smoke. I heard about it from one of the other tenants. The worst part was I caught Mr. GE giving me the hairy eye one night when I was picking up my mail. That's right. He was looking at me like I did it.