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Three Mistakes
by Richard Thomas

Listen to Richard Thomas read 'Three Mistakes'

It's my fault, and I'll have to live with it.
    Coins jingle into the faded Fedora, rumpled and stained by cheap booze and nights in crowded doorways. Cold concrete numbs my ass.
    "Thank you sir. God bless you."
    The stench that emanates from my body grows worse in the sun, and what used to be a welcoming warmth is a greasy reminder of how far I've fallen. Fractured sunglasses hide the dark circles and bleary gaze of my bloodshot eyes, duct tape one of my few friends left.
    Boots and heels, dress shoes and sneakers, they click and clack, and stomp on by, each rapid rush and distracted pause a cruel reminder of destination and responsibility. I lick my cracked lips and torture myself again. It is what I do, sober or drunk, hot or cold, alone or...well, alone.

#


"Honey, I'm going. Running late."
    A barrage of footsteps at the top of the stairs, and there is my future, my blood. Long autumn tresses tied back in a ponytail, my wife of six years takes a deep breath. She pushes the stray strands out of her face and stares down at me. Like a family of deer - brown eyes, brown hair.
    "Go on, give Daddy a hug and kiss. He has to go to work."
    Down the beige carpeting come the twins, my big boy, and his three-minutes-younger sister. They should be enough. But they aren't.
    "Oh come here you monkeys."
    "Daddy, daddy...is your knee okay?" my little man asks. Surgery and softball. He worries too much for a four year old.
    "It's better Ian. I'm fine."
    I glance up the stairs at Emmy. She grins, hands on hips, a long list of things to do before she can go to work herself. Breakfast, shoes, jackets, school. Eggies, waffles, orange juice, bananas.
    "Did you see, Ironman? At King Booger...Ironman," he continues, his doe-eyed sister quiet in her patience, hopping from foot to foot. When they are happy, their eyes are lighter. Mocha almost, with flecks of green and gold.
    "Yeah Daddy, King Booger. They have Ironman now," she says. Isabelle, my bell.
    "Ah. What did your mother say. Is it okay?"
    All of us turn towards mom, the children wide-eyed, waiting. The weight of my briefcase drags my gaze to the hardwood floors that never stay clean. Cat hair, dirt and boot scuffs.
    "Okay," she says, "but only if you're good. No reports, no hitting, okay? If you're good, Daddy can pick it up on his way home."
    "Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah," they scream in a chorus.
    "Okay, I gotta go guys. Be good for your mother. Come here."
    A blanket of kisses and tiny hugs. No syrup or jelly yet. No sticky hands. A faint whiff of lavender from last night's bath. A flash of giggles and soapy smiles.
    "Call me if you're going to be late," she says. I will. I always do.

#


A crumpled dollar bill floats into the hat. That's a forty ounce right there.
    Three mistakes. That's all it took to bring down the house of cards that I had mistaken for oak. Cocky and sure of myself, denied things that I thought I was owed, I carved out my own niche of depravity, and thought that I could keep it there. It's never that clean.
    I peel off the jacket. A wondrous thing this jacket. The Army green solicits sympathy, but the pockets. My god, the pockets. I once walked out of a 7-11 with a six pack of Busch beer distributed throughout, four Slim Jims, three Snickers, and a pack of Marlboro Lights. Never been caught. Shoplifting, that is.
    A rumble of the el train two blocks away, and a blur of figures pushes against the windows. Suits and skirts, jeans and khakis, resentment and jealousy.
    It is quiet around me now, a distant bird chirping in the park, and I glance down at my watch. Yes, my watch. Another thing I still have, a reminder. I lean over the hat, and stir the morning's omelette with a bent finger. Four dollars in bills, maybe another two in change. Enough for tonight, but not tomorrow. Keep going.
    Three mistakes.
    The first was my cell phone. A rookie mistake. But I was indeed that - a rookie. My first time. And I had my reasons. She got fat. She nagged me. Everything I did, it was never enough. We had sex six times that year. Six. Total.
    The first was the cell phone, the records, the bill. It didn't take much work. She never got the mail, until the day that she did. I was lazy, and it cost me.

#


"Jon, can you explain something to me?" she says, dropping the cell phone bill in my lap. I've prepared for this, I have my answers.
    "What babe, explain what?"
    "All of these phone calls."
    She towers over me as I sit in the faded green recliner. Fabric torn at the edges, abused and neglected. We were kin. My feet are up, as I watch the Cubs lose. The kids are asleep, and our living room is innocent. The silent brick fireplace never one to interrupt.
    "Work hon. You know I make a lot of calls for work, that's what I do. I'm an account executive, I'm always on the phone, all hours of the day and night, calling clients, answering questions."
    My heart pounds hard and fast in my chest. I'm going to give my hand away. She can sense it, like a rattlesnake in the dark, waiting for the mongoose to strike.
    "Don't worry about this, it's work stuff. Sit down. You want some ice cream?"
    "Who is Jessica?"
    "Who?"
    "Jessica. Of all the numbers here, you called her number 112 times last month. You better know who the hell Jessica is."
    Her face is taut. Strained to the point of breaking. She doesn't want to believe, and it should be an easy sale on my part. It's what I do. For a living.
    "Oh, right, Jess. We call her Jess. Microsoft. She's one of my biggest vendors. Man, I didn't realize that monster was on me so much last month."
    Poor choice of words. The faux antique clock on the mantle ticks as loud as a snare drum rim shot. I hold her gaze as my brain squirms around like a worm in the noon sun.
    "Explain," she says.
    She hasn't moved. And for a moment it's all gone. The tv, the couch, the Barbie dolls, the firetruck. I'm close. I sit up, closing the recliner, and reach for her hands. She'll have none of it.
    "Have you ever seen Jessica?" I ask.
    "No."
    "Good Lord. A mountain of a woman. She's been a royal pain in the ass the last month, with the new Windows XP SP3 coming out. There have been a lot of phone calls back and forth. Didn't you see my bonus check for the month?"
    "Yes."
    "$4,000 from Microsoft sales alone! We upgraded Hewitt, Caterpillar, Amtrak, and Sears. Huge sales. You should be giving that troll a big hug and kiss. Seriously."
    "Oh."
    "Seriously, Emmy. You worry too much. When would I have time for an affair? You want some ice cream? I'm going with Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. You want the strawberry?"
    "Okay." A whisper.
    The hands come down. Her eyes lighten. A grin starts at the edge of her mouth.
    Jessica is a 26 year-old blonde with the body of an Olympic gymnast. We've been having an affair for two months now. I feel more alive than I have in years. She does work for Microsoft, that part is true. It's the only truth in that statement. Emmy should have followed her instincts. In time, she will.

#


A handful of coins hit the hat, a quarter bouncing out, rolling towards the fresh grass. It stops next to a bunch of dandelions, golden yellow, reaching for the sky. Tomorrow they will be white and ready for the wind. Tomorrow they will be gone. It's nothing new.
    "Thank you ma'am. God bless you."
    "You Okay?" she asks.
    I never look up. It's too much for me. Too close. The ones that stop and talk are invariably the brightest souls, dripping with optimism, freshly showered, their act together. The women are the worst. I haven't had sex with a woman in two years. That's how long this fall has taken.
    "I'm okay."
    I can see her feet. Her black pumps. I'd sell my soul just to shove her pretty foot in my mouth. I tremble at the thought of a woman's touch. It is beyond my imagination. My head swims with the heady aroma of freshly cut grass, Dove soap, evergreen mint from her chewing gum, and a hint of sandalwood. The complexities of the modern woman. Layered, and rich.
    "You sure? Here. You need this more than I do."
    A thick wad of folded bills is gently set in the middle of the hat. She moves several quarters on top of her offering to keep the wind from blowing it away. Could be six dollars. Could be twenty-six. You never know. She's young. She's a pro at this, knows what to do.
    "God bless you, lady. You're too kind."
    "It's nothing. My father was in Vietnam. Be strong."
    For a second I risk it, and look up at her face. Nothing but a golden halo behind her head, blinded by the brilliant May sunshine, her silhouette a tall glass of water.
    "Thank you."
    And she's gone. Never got her face. Maybe she'll be back, but I doubt it. Her kind like to spread it around, help as many as they can. On the way to her five dollar Venti Mocha, her eight dollar salad, her twelve dollar glass of wine, with her one-hundred and thirty-five dollar Pradas nestled in her two-hundred and twelve dollar Coach bag. I was there once. My own habits, as well as Jessica's. Mistresses don't come cheap.
    The second mistake was thinking I could control her.

#


"Oh, you shouldn't have. But thank you."
    Oxblood red, the present lies in paper and ribbon deep inside the cream paper bag. The salesgirl was right.
    "It's nothing. Thank Microsoft."
    We laugh. Dimly lit, the restaurant is blocks from work, but we don't care. Shrimp cocktails with vodka martinis, medium rare filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Expensed. Never smart.
    "We still have time," I say, glancing around the dark room.
    A low grumble of voices wraps around us, at once nonsense, and every conversation we've ever had. Nothing but ties and belts and deflected eye contact.
    "I can't tonight."
    "Why not?"
    "Don't get whiny, Jon."
    "I'm not getting whiny. If I wanted cold and unavailable I'd stay home."
    The quick pout, and I've finalized this evening. Sinatra, always Sinatra in the background. Nobody has an original idea anymore. My blood curdles, and the slow boil of my quiet rage begins. Nothing new.
    "That's what I'm talking about, Jon."
    The perfectly coiffed blonde is losing her appeal. She is more work than I desire. And now that the sex is drying up, what's the point? She is so carefully put together. Tight skirt under a tailored jacket. And underneath that, silk and lace. Perfumed and soft, every inch of her edible and dizzying.
    The constant motion of the waitstaff around us adds to the frenzy. I loosen my tie and gasp for air.
    "I'm sorry, Jess. It's been a long day."
    "I've heard that one before. Lots of long days. Wife and kids, sales down and your boss giving you a hard time. Really, I mean, it's getting old. And so are you, my friend. These late night dinners aren't doing your waistline any good. Did you call the misses yet, tell her you're working late? Wouldn't want to forget little Evan's toy."
    "Ian, for Christ's sake. Look..."
    "I'm going to the restroom. I'll be right back."
    She's up and gone before my head can finally explode. I take a deep breath and check the time. 8:15 p.m. Oh crap. The kids. They'll already be in bed. I forgot. I forgot Burger King, and Ironman. I pull my cell phone out of my coat pocket, and it's off. I turned it off earlier when she was nibbling on my earlobe in the cab. Six missed messages. This won't be pretty. I need to call home. Now.
    A tap on my shoulder. I look up into the cold eyes of our waiter. The same waiter that I've been tipping 10% for the past six months. The same rail-thin, pale geek that I've ignored and pestered forever. A shimmer in his eyes completes the flush in his cheeks.
    "For you sir, from the lady."
    And he's gone in a quick swish, a grin twitching at the edge of his weasel mouth. A note. On her personalized stationary. The swirl of the magenta Jessica makes the bile rise in my throat.

JON -
WE'RE DONE. YOU KNEW THAT. I'VE ALREADY LEFT
MICROSOFT. AND TO BE SURE YOU DON'T FOLLOW,
I'VE SENT EMMY A NOTE. WITH PICTURES. AND A
SEXUAL HARASSMENT SUIT TO YOUR BOSS. GOOD
TIMES, FOR SURE, BUT A COACH BAG DOESN'T BUY
ME. I'M A LADY. DIAMONDS, JON. I TOLD YOU A
MILLION TIMES, DIAMONDS. AND A LITTLE BIT OF
RESPECT. NEXT.

LOVE,
JESSICA

I'm going to be sick. I rush to the bathroom in the back, everything a blur. I make it to the stall and there I unleash the two-hundred dollar dinner I've just had. And the last bit of control that I thought I had. Pieces of shrimp swim with red wine, and I pull out my phone as I sink to the floor. The last call was a text. It simply reads DON'T BOTHER.

#


I'm lying on my side, half on the sidewalk, half in the cool grass. I've been doing it again. Weak from the sun, and memory lane, I scoop up the change. The lady was kind. Twenty three dollars is in her carefully folded bit of money. A great day for a man of my stature.
    The third mistake. Thinking it couldn't get worse. That was the third mistake.
    I should have gone home and begged my wife for forgiveness. I should have groveled, gotten therapy, anything. Instead, I thought I was better off. I didn't need any of them. I could make it alone. There would be other Jessicas, plenty more. I had a great job, and was in great shape. I had it all. Until I didn't.
    In a span of weeks, I lost my wife and kids. The house and the car. Then the job. One after another. Lying in my rented apartment in a drunken stupor, I eventually lost that too. I went numb, and stopped caring. Somehow I ended up here.
    I pull a picture of the twins out of my coat pocket, wrinkled and bent at the edges. They were four in this one. Easter I think. Ian is wearing the green argyle sweater I got him at Target. Isabelle is wearing a flowered dress. I haven't seen them in years. I don't even know where they are.
    My memory comes to me in pieces, it's why I can't hold a job. Tomorrow I'll have forgotten most of this. But one thing I do remember, every day, every time I wake up.
    It's my fault, and I'll have to live with it.



About the author:
Richard lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He was the winner of the ChiZine Publications 2009 "Enter the World of
Filaria" contest. His short story "Maker of Flight" was chosen by Filaria author Brent Hayward and Bram Stoker Award-Winning editor Brett Alexander Savory. He has been published by Colored Chalk, Cause & Effect, Gold Dust, Vain, Dogmatika, Nefarious Muse, Red Fez, New Voices in Fiction, and Opium. His work will also appear in two anthologies by NVF in 2009. He is currently pursuing a MFA at Murray State University in their low-residency program. You can follow his work at http://www.whatdoesnotkillme.wordpress.com.



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