There are basically two ways to get to Jeff’s house. The first way takes you down Alamo, a wide four-laned boulevard dotted by street lights and developments on the western side and rolling green cornfields on the eastern side, and it’s a straight shot. The second way takes you up Altamont, a two-lane thoroughfare with too many shopping plazas and fast food restaurants, and down Valley Grove, a busy connector that spills off to various developments to the north and south.
Jeff always takes Alamo when he can. Sometimes though, like tonight, he has to take Altamont and it always feels unreasonably long.
He drives a big black Ford F-150. The interior is expected-messy. Paper refuse of every species in the phyla “vehicle garbage-us” ever-present on the passenger seat floor, in the cramped back seats, in between the center console and the driver’s seat. Receipts, paper bags from fast food restaurants, business cards, appointment cards, coffee cups. An intruding species of plastic water bottles doesn’t last quite as long as the red-and-yellow plastic straws and plastic Mentos packets that easily flatten and adhere to the rubber mats designed to capture mud, dirt, and other messes a passenger’s shoes are wont to introduce into the cab of a pickup truck, which is theoretically a vehicle for very-active, outdoorsy types.
The truck rattles some, but Jeff pays the sound little mind. He only notices the gas gauge, the mileage, and the speedometer as far as actual functional components of the vehicle go. He cares deeply about the bumper sticks, rear-facing window magnets, and exterior cleanliness of his truck. He pays intense attention and devotes disturbing amounts of mental energy on the connotative pastiche present on the vehicles of other drivers around him. It is likely that the great value he places on his own vehicular statement pieces is disproportionate to the value other drivers place on theirs such that the distress he experiences when he observes a contrary political or social perspective via the aforementioned stickers, magnets, etc. is a product of mental miscalculation.
Still, bumper stickers piss him off.
Jeff tunes the radio to local sports commentary where a confident-sounding voice staccatoes out angry criticism of this or that person in the “sports” galaxy.
“And the problem with James is that he acts like he owns the damn team. He commands the front office to jump when he says jump and they better jump high. How are they supposed to function with such a primadonna calling the shots? Entitlement, folks, will be the death of this team. And that entitlement trickles down into the rec and youth leagues, into the schools and compromises the whole culture. Eventually, we’re going to wake up to an America where everyone expects the world from everyone else, but doesn’t want to work a second for anything. Back in my day, you had to really grind, really labor to get ahead. And the good guys didn’t talk much, they just worked and worked and worked. And those great men and women built this country with their calloused hands, brick by brick. Never asking for an extra inch of nothin’. Never crying foul because they didn’t catch a small break. Entitlement is a cancer, folks.”
Jeff nods softly. He doesn’t listen too much, but he likes the guy’s tone and the sound of his voice. He imagines that he himself sounds like the radio when he’s worked up and proselytizing.
Jeff rattled on around Valley Grove and saw a few boys shooting hoops at an outdoor court next to the lush-green park. Chain nets plinked like it was raining pennies. The ball thump-wincing against the asphalt. Shouts and breaths rising to meet the bright stars sweeping the velvet night sky.
Jeff, at six-feet tall and weighing around 270 pounds, wore a black polo shirt that smelled faintly of acetone tucked neatly into faded blue jeans held up by a belt that had seen too many days, and leather boots. He had a receding hairline and a thirty year-old goatee with spots of gray. His skin was a kind of burnt red for some inexplicable reason. The boys wore long mesh shorts, tank tops, and bright, new-looking sneakers. They had dark hair barbered into tight fades. Hairless faces save for one thin mustache.
Jeff was white and they were not.
Jeff wondered where those boys came from and what they were up to. He felt uncomfortable about them for some nameless reason. He could have sworn one of those young men stared him down through his deeply tinted window, a finger pointed in a challenge to his aging, weakening virility. He kept driving, but his mind stayed back there with the boys concerned about them, what they meant to him, about him, for him.
“And let me just say this. No athlete should disrespect the men and women of our armed forces, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, by some so-called protest of our national anthem. The national anthem is a moment of unity and pride for the whole country and you have some insanely wealthy twenty-something with a chip on his shoulder because he’s been brainwashed by this notion that the police, the government, and the country itself hates him. And that guy — that rich dude with his bloated sense of self-importance and undeserved status — goes out and makes this moment of national pride all about him. It’s shameful. It’s makes me sad to think that so many great Americans have died to protect us and those of us fortunate enough to reap the enormous benefits this great country has to offer take to criticizing the best of us. It’s sickening.”
Jeff turned into a McDonald’s. He pulled up to the little perforated metal box, which squawked, “Welcome to McDonald’s. Please order whenever you are ready.” Jeff ordered a large sweat tea, easy on the ice, a double quarter pounder with cheese, a medium fry, and a fresh-baked apple pie turnover. “That’ll be $11.47. Please pull up to the first window.”
Jeff moved up to the window and clumsily extracted his brown, bulging wallet from his back pocket without unbuckling his seat belt. While Jeff was looking down and counting out his bills and exact change, a young woman appeared at the window.
Her name tag read, “Daniel.” She had long blonde hair with streaks of blues, pinks, and purples. She was very slender and square and too tall, in Jeff’s estimation. She had a silver stud protruding from the right side of her bottom lip, a small black hoop looped around her left nostril, and a half-dollar-sized black disc in either ear. She wore heavy dark eyeliner.
“11.47,” the young woman stated flatly.
“Uh right. Here.” Jeff forked over the money like he was dropping a rat in a tank full of snakes. He perspired visibly.
“Large sweet tea,” she said as she handed over Jeff’s drink. He accepted awkwardly and could feel a surge of discomfort rising in him.
“And here’s your food,” she said as she handed Jeff a large, heavy, warm, paper bag. Jeff, agog, could barely think as the cab filled with the pleasant, salty smell of fresh fries. The young woman had long disappeared as Jeff stared idly into the store. Only the quick double-bleat of the car behind him pushed Jeff on, which allowed him to shake the mysterious allure of the young woman at McDonald’s long enough to drive forward.
“And you even have the tough guys in boxing looking for soft exits. You go ten rounds with Irish Mike and you get your brains smushed in, who’s to blame? You or everyone else? Accountability, folks. It’s a lack of accountability. And if you can’t hang with the big boys, maybe you should stay out of the men’s room and start rah-rah-ing for bathroom equality or perverts in dresses or whatever the new wave of PC policing demands. There was a time when men were men. Hard, dangerous men were appreciated for doing the hard, dangerous things this hard, dangerous world needed done. Now, everyone is looking for soft exits. Soft lives. Easy does it. Everyone is the same. Everyone matters. Even the perverts. Especially, the perverts. Meanwhile, the normal, average joes busting their humps week in and week out have to bear more of the burden. Why? Cause the yuppies demand it! Look, the world doesn’t care about your soft concerns. The world only cares about output and results. We all have got to be more accountable. Anyways, so the Phillies are visiting the Braves next weekend and . . .”
Jeff rumbled out of the McDonald’s parking lot following a painted arrow on the pavement that directed drivers to the proper lane to exit. He blindly grabbed a few fries out of the bag as he kept his eyes ahead and popped them into his mouth with a certain relish. He felt warm and okay once more.
Jeff turned onto his street, a dark tableau of suburbia in the night time. A peaceful enough setting, full of annoying details. Jeff saw some kids had sidewalk-chalked a little soccer field in the center of his road. Past that, Jeff saw someone’s sprinkler had been set too close to the road and a little river had formed flowing towards the storm drain at the street corner. And worst of all, right next to his house, a walker was letting his dog take a shit on the grass.
Jeff pulled into his driveway, twisting the keys and killing the engine to his truck. He stepped out with his bag of food in one hand and his big sweet tea in the other. His angry eyes met the walker’s.
“You gonna clean that up?” Jeff inquired sharply, inquisitorially as the walker pulled a plastic bag out of a little dispenser attached to the dog’s leash.
“Yeah — sorry!”
“Mmm.” Jeff huffed, shook his head, took a big draw from his tea, and turned away.
He walked up to his big double-door-ed front door with its faux bronze/wrought iron frame and tempered double pane glass windows, and had to juggle both his big drink and his steadily cooling sack of food in one hand while he fumbled with his keys.
Once inside, Jeff walked steadily towards the kitchen. The whole house glowed a dim shade of orange from some light out of sight.
In the kitchen, Jeff took his food out of the paper bag and placed the burger, the fries, and the apple pie in its little sleeve on a cream colored, porcelain plate. Jeff arranged his food just so. He smiled slightly to himself.
He brought his food and his big tea to the rec room in the basement. The rec room contained an enormous 85″ flatscreen TV, framed posters of Brett Favre, Reagan, and Humphrey Bogart looking quizzically at Lauren Bacall, a large L-shaped couch hugging the corner of the room, and a folded American flag in a glass case. A full-sized fridge stood next to the water heater and furnace, the bowels of the house.
One other object sat triumphantly in the room: a plush leather Flash Furniture rocker recliner, in a deep, yet reflective shade of taupe.
The ridges in the back of the chair were worn and starting to crack in spots. The chair was well-loved, heavily used, a joy.
Jeff spent indefinite amounts of time on a nightly basis basking in the glory of that chair. The chair was Jeff’s Xanadu, his respite, his command center on the top of the world.
Jeff sat down in his big ol’ comfy chair and flipped on the TV. Two vaguely old and well-quaffed men in suits with thick knots in their ties were having a conversation about some losing candidate from days gone by.
“I think women are smart enough to figure out who they want to vote for and why, without having their husbands and boyfriends telling them what to think. She must really believe that everyone in the room, but her is stupid.” Man 1 said with a toothy smile.
“Apparently, she only likes being asked softball questions by her co-conspirators in the press. The American public is not allowed to ask and deserves no answers. Gee, I wonder why she lost!” Man 2 exclaimed with a knowing glance.
“Four to six Valium-Diazepam shots per day keep her walking and talking. Prison or firing squad, take your choice America.” Man 1 replied with a serious look on his face, a single thick strand of hair had come loose and swung down his long forehead.
Jeff wasn’t listening or watching. The flashing lights and crisp sounds emanating from the the TV washed over Jeff’s face while he busied himself with opening and firing up his laptop.
He pulled up his Facebook page. His feed was full of his “friends” sharing 30-second videos quick-constructing elaborate seasonal snacks, long posts about personal affronts with 127 likes, 4 shares, and no comments, short ominous posts with no likes, no shares, and 49 comments, and endless links to news story after news story after news story.
Jeff bit into his burger, some grease dripped onto his shirt. He flipped the channel to a show about new inventions.
A white man in a tight fitting blazer and no tie gave a talk to a crowd of other sophisticated looking people. He wore a little translucent microphone hugging his cheek.
“The world is evolving. New technologies are abundant. Wealth is growing. We’re starting to win again.
“I remember a time, not too long ago, when the forecast for humanity seemed bleak. A stark wasteland of self-destruction.
“We were warned of unseen, creeping harms caused by human innovation. Global warming. Climate change. Nuclear war. Food shortages. Water shortages. Massive, untreatable contagions.
“But we awoke to the dawning of a new era by simply casting a vote for a return to greatness. A new era of optimism. Of real hope and real change.
“Thanks to the Great Leader, we all live in the city on the hill now. And our children and their children will reap enormous rewards unfathomable by our ragged and fearful predecessors.
“Today, I am proud to introduce you to the latest breakthrough in….”
The whimsical, everything’s fine tone of the speaker and the neat clothes and smiling, nodding faces of the crowd lulled Jeff into a kind of calm. He leaned way back in his chair and extending the little foot rest, his recliner swaddling him.
With his laptop closed on his lap, he placed his plate on top of it. He ate industriously now, focused on the task.
“This small thing will change your life. In the near future, you will not know how you lived without it.”
More chewing, gulpy swallowing sounds. Long sip from his tea.
“And when tomorrow comes you will be ready to meet it. The challenges you face will be resolved; your goals will be in reach.”
Crumpling paper. Discarding. Satisfied breathing.
“All you need is this…..”
He let his mind drift off to the warble of the TV, the respiration of the house, the warmth of his laptop computer on his lap.
“And the beauty of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is when you are alive and free, nothing else matters except whether you are happy. Nothing else. Not one other thing.”