Jake dropped the baby off at daycare early that morning and replaced three water heaters by lunch. There were two HVAC systems left to service, so he wolfed down a sandwich as he drove between jobs. When he got back to the shop that afternoon, his boss called him into his office.
“Take a seat. “ The fluorescent ceiling lights made everything in the room a weird shade of green. Mr. Huffman closed the door and dropped into a rolling black leather chair behind his desk that had nothing on it except a paper calendar. He bent over the calendar, fiddled with the chewed tip of a ballpoint pen, and cleared his throat.
“Jake, we’re going have to let you go. I hate this, because you do good work, but when the paper mill shut down, we lost lots of business.”
Jake’s face burned, so he looked down at the empty lunch pail still in his hands. His fingernails were caked with black dirt he had scraped off one of the HVAC units that afternoon. A clock on the paneled wall ticked loudly.
“Mr. Huffman, I really need this job.” He glanced up at his boss, who was looking at the pen. This was shameful stuff, a man losing a job, and they both knew it.
“I know. But you’ll find something, you’ll do the right thing for Ashley and the baby.”
His throat thick, Jake walked out of the office and down the hall to his locker to change out of his work boots, heavy with dried mud. He pushed through the back door of the building, drove to the Quik Stop for a beer and ran into Wade Merrill, a guy from high school whose dad was president of the bank. Wade went on and on about a big catch Jake made their senior year to help them get to the state football championship, then asked what he was doing now. Jake told him he’d just quit his job, that he was sick of flooded basements. Wade laughed and said you’re a winner, man, you’ll find something.
Jake told Wade he had to get going and Wade said yeah, I guess you got a kid now. Jake throat tightened again and he didn’t say that he was going to see his buddy, Tommy, who lived down by the river.
The windows of Tommy’s little cinder block house were levered, and he kept them open most of the year to catch the sound of the water. There was a big wood-burning stove and the whole house smelled like ashes, even in the summer. Tommy had worked for a construction company for a couple of years, then one day a company truck rolled backwards over his foot, mashing most of the bones. Now he drew disability and cooked a little meth on the side.
When Jake got to Tommy’s, he found him stretched out on his sofa in a plaid robe.
“Shit, man, hate to hear that,” said Tommy, when Jake told him he’d been laid off. The room was lit by a rerun of the 2011 National Championship game on the television and Nick Saban’s unsmiling face filled the screen.
“Saban don’t never look happy. You’d think them four million dollars a year would wipe that pissy look off his face,” Jake said. He’d worked since he was twelve—cutting grass, framing up houses— and this was the best paying job he’d ever had. He liked it because every day was different, from installing a new water heater to dealing with a busted air conditioner. The beer sloshed around in his stomach as he thought about how he would tell his wife he’d lost his job. They’d been together since their senior year of high school when one day he sat behind her in history class, looked at her curly hair, and wondered how she was in bed. Two months later she was pregnant, and after they graduated they got married and moved into a trailer on her father’s property.
“Christmas is two weeks away and I have no idea where I’m going to get the money for it,” Jake said.
Tommy kept his eyes on the screen. “Dude, I’m telling you. You need to help me with my ice. It ain’t no big deal, you know.”
The beer in Jake’s stomach sloshed again. Moving meth would be quick and easy money, but he’d really never done anything illegal other than driving drunk and he figured that didn’t count because he’d never been caught.
He told Tommy about seeing Wade, and Tommy said wouldn’t it be nice to have a mommy and daddy who paid for everything. Jake’s parents had worked at the paper mill ever since they got out of high school. When the mill shut down, they said they had to go where there was opportunity, and moved to the coast of Georgia to work in another mill. He got the occasional call from them—they were doing a lot of fishing and even thought they might buy a used boat,and it was like they’d started a new life. He had never been out of the county and they hadn’t either, so the whole move was a big surprise to him.
“Maybe we ran into each other for a reason,” Jake said. “Like, maybe, I should’ve asked if his dad had any openings at the bank.”
Tommy snorted and said, “Dude, let me tell you something about the fucking world. Wade’s daddy, he thinks of himself as a maker. The makers make all the money and pay for stuff like food stamps and welfare for the so-called lazy people, the takers. Wade’s daddy only takes care of folks like him, people who went to college, so good thing you didn’t waste your time asking.” He took a long swallow of beer. “You know, now that I think about it, all that’s left out here in the county are the makers and the takers—hardly nothing in between.”
Jake left Tommy’s to go to the Bi-Rite to pick up diapers and as he drove he thought about Wade calling him a winner and wondered whether he meant in football, or just in general. Back in high school Jake was a big shot, a football star, and all kinds of people wanted to be around him. Now it was just him and Ashley, and the baby, who cried all the time. The doctor said it was colic, something he’d never heard of.
Hardly anyone shopped at the Bi-Rite after Walmart moved in and many of the food racks had been removed, leaving long, black greasy streaks on the linoleum. The beer had gotten to him so he pushed through a swinging door by the meat department to get to the bathroom. He wove between rows of boxed food stacked on pallets, and as he reached for the bathroom door, he looked down to see a cellophane-wrapped bundle of cold medicine on top of one of the pallets. He remembered Tommy telling him the law was trying to put meth dealers out of business by keeping this kind of medicine out of people’s hands, that he had to pay bootleggers twenty-five dollars for a single box.
And here was a case of the stuff.
He looked around to make sure he was alone, paused for a long moment, then picked up the bundle and took it into the bathroom. After locking the door and relieving himself, he tore open the bundle and began loading boxes into his coveralls, flushing the cellophane down the toilet.
He quietly cracked the bathroom door open and saw a man walking toward him wearing a big white apron with red streaks on the front. The meat counter guy. Jake pulled the door shut and locked it, then pushed the toilet lid up and sat down loudly so the guy would hear it. Heat was coming up and out of the neck of his coveralls, and he could hear the guy playing a video game on his phone. Didn’t the dude have some meat to cut? After about five minutes the guy knocked quietly on the door.
“Coming!” Jake flushed, twice, and started to open the door but now the toilet was overflowing with shreds of cellophane. There was no plunger in sight, so he kicked the globs of cellophane under the sink. Once the toilet stopped gushing, he opened the door and pushed past the guy, avoiding eye contact. He passed an old woman who looked like she would fall if she didn’t have her shopping cart to hold onto. She stared at him blankly, and he guessed she was too deaf to hear the boxes clattering under his coveralls.
As the girl at the register rang up the diapers, he wondered how he would pay for things without a job and thought about the only time his father ever used food stamps. They’d picked up a rotisserie chicken from the deli and the clerk held the chicken up and loudly demanded that one of the bag boys return it, telling everyone who would listen that food stamps didn’t cover hot food. Back then food stamps were the paper kind, not credit card-type things like now, and he remembered how they shook in his father’s hand as he paid for the rest of the groceries.
He picked up the diapers, and as he did, a few of the boxes shifted inside his coveralls. The girl looked him over, then shrugged and picked up her phone.
His heart was still pounding when he got to Tommy’s.
“You’re back—what’s going on?” Tommy said.
“I found something.” Jake unzipped his coveralls and began flinging boxes at Tommy.
“Well, well, well… what have we here, my friend?”
“Took ‘em out of the back room at the Bi-Rite. It was like they were waiting for me.”
Tommy examined the boxes, then pulled a roll of bills out of a wall safe and tossed it to Jake. And just as Jake was feeling good for the first time in the day, thinking he’d have some money for Christmas, Tommy got a text from a buddy who told him a cop might be on his way over.
As they ran around hiding things, the blood in Jake’s temples started throbbing. It made him think about a water heater overheating when the water boiled inside the tank. If that happened, you had to act quick to flush it or else all hell would break loose.
Tommy’s forehead was shiny with sweat. “Dude, could you take some of this cash and keep it for me?” Jake noticed Tommy’s hands were shaking as he tried to hang a fake painting on a nail above the wall safe.
“Man, c’mon … no! This was just a one-time thing to get me through Christmas—I’ve got to get out of here,” Jake said, grabbing his phone. He jumped in his truck and as he pulled out of Tommy’s driveway, he saw a bright set of headlights about half a mile away. He hoped it wasn’t the cop but a few seconds later blue lights appeared in his rear view mirror so he gunned it, turning down a side street toward his daughter’s daycare. He pulled behind the dark building, turned off his truck, and as he listened to the engine tick, he pressed his fingers to his pulsing temples. When no one showed up, he figured the cop was probably at Tommy’s, and he hoped no one found the cold medicine he’d just stolen.
What a shit-show of a day—losing his job then stealing that medicine. And now he was hiding behind his little daughter’s daycare because he thought the police were after him. He imagined Wade finding all this out and a wave of embarrassment washed over him. Restarting his truck, he eased out from behind the building and instead of turning toward home, toward Ashley and the baby, he headed for the interstate. As he entered the highway, he slipped easily between two semi-trucks to join a long line of cars heading east, toward Birmingham and Atlanta.
A minivan passed him, full of suitcases and wrapped gifts. He could see a little car seat in the back and he thought about Ashley, fixing dinner with the baby on her hip. He pictured Tommy trying to hang the painting over the wall safe and he began shaking like Tommy had and then realized the truck had drifted onto the rumble strips on the shoulder. He swung back onto the interstate and a late model SUV in the lane next to him veered away slightly, a woman in the passenger seat picking her head up off a white pillow to look at him. A little dog with a fancy collar was curled up in her lap.
She kept staring at him and after a few minutes he snapped, rolling down his window and yelling he’d been laid off, not fired. He wasn’t a thief. He wanted to work. But now he had to leave town to find a job. His hair was flying around in the wind and the cold air stung his eyes, blurring his vision.
The woman frantically motioned to the driver next to her to go faster, and the car bolted ahead. It was a BMW, a maker car. He thought about Mr. Huffman telling him he’d do the right thing for Ashley and the baby and as he rolled up his window and wiped his eyes, he hoped to hell he was.
BIO: Kim Bundy lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she works at an academic medical center. She has begun querying agents with a recently completed middle-grade novel set in the 1970s. One of her short stories was published last summer in the literary magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, and another will appear later this year in The Louisville Review.