Bless This House: A Short Story by Laura

Ever since Sheila saw a house built for a family in need on one of those TV specials, a particularly beautiful two story deal with a water slide built into a rock cliff in the back yard and a beautiful glass atrium, she knew exactly what she had to do. As soon as the end credits rolled, she turned off the television and started inspecting her home. She got out a notebook and a clipboard so she could take notes whenever she found something she didn’t like about the house, like the dingy screen door, and the non-walk-in closets, and the fact that the shower took twenty minutes to get hot.
When her husband Steve got home, he didn’t pay much attention to what Sheila was doing. He was wrapped up in some kind of car race that he knew she hated watching, so he wouldn’t be expecting her full attention for at least a couple of hours.  Sheila took the opportunity to drag her old desk out of storage in the garage, wipe it off with some antibacterial wipes, gingerly throw away a dead roach that was camping out in a drawer, and haul it over to the guest room. That done, she snagged a chair from the dining room, hardly arousing a glance from Steve, and settled down at her new work station. It was a breathtaking moment, looking over the expanse of a desk yet to be cluttered with ideas and half-formed plans.
Sheila looked over the list she’d made of her home’s shortcomings. It wasn’t pretty. All the work it would take to make the place livable gave her a headache, compounded by the thought of how many thousands of dollars it would cost. And with Steve’s surgery last fall this was no time to be adding extra expenses to their already strained budget.
To make herself feel better, Sheila went through her closet and started sorting out things she could get rid of. As the pile of stained t-shirts, too-small dresses, and pants with holes in the thighs grew, Sheila felt more and more at peace. She threw an old black skirt that she’d kept for far too many years even though it was always too tight onto the pile, and thought, no more. No more will I keep clothes for sentimental reasons when they don’t flatter me. From now on, everything in my wardrobe will be fabulous. She then thought twice about the skirt and took it back out of the pile, thinking, it’s well made, maybe I can let it out, or maybe I’ll actually lose some weight one day.
Steve’s game was ending, so Sheila went to the kitchen to start making something to eat. She didn’t really have an end result in mind, but she started sautéing some ground beef, figuring it would become something.
“Mmm, Sloppy Joes. You knew exactly what I was hungry for,” Steve said as he kissed the back of Sheila’s head.
That answered the dinner question, so Sheila was free to devote her mind to something else as she cooked. She thought, maybe there’s nothing wrong with the house, just with the furniture. It wouldn’t cost that much to get a new bedroom set or redo the living room. A few tasteful pieces of art, instead of the landscapes from the art student sale and those pictures the kids made when they were 8, would be a good start.
Sheila finished making the Sloppy Joes and, since they only had two hamburger buns, she served hers on white toast. She had a beer with dinner, which she didn’t do every night, but sometimes it was nice, especially when she had something on her mind. They watched whatever was on TV while they ate, and it wasn’t that great, so after dinner Sheila excused herself. After loading the dishwasher and calling their oldest son to see how he was doing, she went back to her office with a plate of cookies and a cup of tea.
The overhead light was bothering her, so she found a desk lamp piled in a closet the family called the “free for all closet.” What a mess, she thought, that’ll be the first thing to go in the new house.
For the rest of the night, questions like “is one hot tub enough?” and “would an open shower just make a heck of a mess?” dominated Sheila’s thoughts. She found herself running out of space in her notebook (well, there were only three pages left in it when she started), so she found some graph paper the kids had bought for some school project in the free for all closet and started using that. After a while she realized she could draw house plans on the graph paper too, so she started attempting to design the new house with what limited architectural ability she possessed. She drew two great wings separated by an all-glass entryway, which would also lead to their huge back yard with a swimming pool, a hot tub, and a big barbecue grill for the summers. She remembered to include things like a garage and a storage shed out back, and a bathroom on every floor in case her parents or her in-laws came to stay (they didn’t do too well with stairs). On second thought, she decided an elevator would be the best way to get older folks around, especially if one of them ended up in a wheelchair. She figured a basement was always a good idea, for storage and laundry machines and all that, so she added in one of those.
By the time Sheila looked up from her work, it was already midnight. She wondered why Steve hadn’t checked in on her, but figured he was probably caught up in one of his late night movies. She shut off her desk lamp and went out into the living room, but Steve was already asleep. Figures, she thought, he left all the lights on for me to shut off. She went around locking the doors and switching off lights, still consumed with her plans, then went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash up. As the water swirled in their old chipped sink, Sheila made a mental note to add “two-sink master bathroom” to her list.
She was out as soon as her head hit the pillow, as usual, and her dreams were all about construction workers whistling while they demolished her house.

A few days later, Steve took Sheila out to The Olive Garden, which she knew was more for her benefit than his so she loved him for it. Of course, it was only fair after how many times he’d dragged her to the Claim Jumper. They ordered glasses of house wine, and after the breadsticks came and their glasses were half empty, Sheila decided to bring up the house project.
She’d brought some notes to show Steve, and as he flipped through them warily, she presented her proposal in what she thought was a very businesslike manner. She said that if they borrowed some money from his parents for collateral, they could get a loan from the bank easy, and after that it was just about elbow grease and finding honest contractors who would work for a good rate, like that guy Steve’s coworker had hired. She also talked about how many problems their current house had and how small it was, and reminded Steve that she’d been living there without complaining for almost seventeen years, since Harry was just a toddler. She said they could start construction on a plot of land somewhere that’s not too expensive, and once the house was ready, they could sell their current house to pay off the construction loan and the rest of their mortgage. She knew a lot of couples who had done this sort of thing after the kids moved out, she said.
By this point, their entrées had arrived, and Steve asked if they could keep talking about this after he finished his fettuccini. Sheila said sure, because her manicotti was getting cold anyway.
They forgot to pick the topic back up until they were in the car on the way home. Sheila reminded Steve that he’d promised they could keep talking about it, and suggested that maybe they could stop for a drink at the pub Steve liked so much. He brightened up at that idea, as she knew he would, and they pulled into the bar’s parking lot a few minutes later.
Steve ordered a whiskey and spent the next five minutes talking to the bartender about it, while Sheila sipped white wine and tried to avoid eye contact with a faintly sleazy guy at the end of the bar. He smelled like cigarettes, which made Sheila glad they didn’t allow smoking in bars anymore. A song came on that she recognized from the car radio, a pop hit by some young man with a guitar. It was a nice song about love, but it made Sheila feel old because she kept thinking about the fact that the singer was her son’s age.
Finally Steve proposed that they take a table and talk this house thing over, and Sheila gratefully acquiesced. They sat down at a wobbly table, which Sheila set right with a couple of sugar packets. The speaker was over their heads, which made it too loud to talk, so Sheila asked if they could switch tables. They found a quieter table which thankfully didn’t wobble, and Steve cleared his throat.
“So is this something you really want?” he asked her.
“Well, of course, that’s why I said it,” Sheila said.
Steve rattled the ice cubes in his glass and took a big sip, which Sheila figured he was just doing to look dramatic.
“Okay, let’s do it,” he said.
“Really? Oh, Steve!”
Sheila jumped up and hugged Steve, and then danced around a little bit.
“Let’s have a toast,” Steve said, raising his glass. “To our dream house.”
“Our dream house!”
They clinked glasses and drank, and the bartender raised a glass from across the room. “Next round’s on me,” the bartender said, winking in a way that didn’t make Sheila uncomfortable. She was just so happy that everything was going her way.

The next day, Sheila woke up with a hangover and a bad mood that she couldn’t shake. She often felt grouchy when she woke up, like everyone else who needed coffee to get their brain started, but this was different. She felt kind of empty and upset, and not hopeless, but maybe pointless. All she kept thinking was that nobody cared about her, really. The kids were grown up, Steve couldn’t be bothered to talk to her much these days, and she hadn’t heard from her sister in months. She knew it was her fault for not joining a club or something and meeting people, like her kids were always telling her to. She had a good time whenever she did spend time with people from her exercise class or her church group, or one of the women from the part-time office job she’d had for a few years. But she never found anyone she really had an interest in getting close to, except Carol, who she considered more or less her closest friend. Carol had worked with Sheila two jobs ago, at a travel office that really needed twice the staff it had, and they had kept in pretty close contact. They went out for lunch on the weekends or a movie every couple of weeks, and they always had a good time gossiping about their husbands and their kids. But no matter how much time they spent together, something always kept Sheila from sharing her true feelings with Carol, if she even knew what those were.
Sheila eventually dragged herself out of bed, and after giving her teeth a half-hearted once over, she brewed a pot of coffee in an attempt to snap herself out of her funk.
She checked her email, which she didn’t do very often so there was a whole lot of junk mail to wade through. In the midst of the coupon offers and chain letters from former coworkers, she found a message from her younger son, Michael, who was in the middle of writing a paper and didn’t have much to say except that he was thinking of taking Philosophy next semester and that he needed more money. Sheila remembered her coffee and poured herself a cup, then mixed in some sugar free sweetener and creamer. As she stirred the coffee and watched it turn opaque, she wondered what could be bothering her.
Maybe some TV would cheer me up, she thought, and she settled down on the couch with the remote control. After flipping through a bunch of bad daytime programming, she settled on a talk show with energetic hosts discussing current events. She drank her first cup of coffee and ate some toaster pastries while watching the hosts debate teenage pregnancy and same sex marriage. She decided she agreed with the blonde female host more than the middle-aged male host. Then some kind of country star came on, and Sheila flipped channels until she found a cooking show. It reminded her that she needed to go grocery shopping, and for some reason that made her feel gloomier than ever.
She changed the channel again, stumbling on a Christian program. She got up to get more coffee, listening from the kitchen, and figured out that the show was about a Christian rock singer giving a tour of his house. In between talking about the kitchen appliances and the basement music studio, the musician mentioned that he’d had his house blessed by a pastor at his housewarming party when he and his family moved in. That’s a great idea, Sheila thought. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all the ladies from church come over and see their beautiful new home? And of course blessing the house would give it protection from evil as a Christian home, which couldn’t be a bad thing. The Reverend would love to be called upon for something like that, and it would make Sheila and Steve look like good parishioners. They might even make it into the church newsletter.
Sheila felt a little bit better as she turned off the TV and opened the curtains. God would have to approve of their new home, so they’d better make it really nice, she thought. It would have to be a testament to his glory, like how they make churches all grand with stained glass and high ceilings and gilded decorations. She would do God proud with this house. When she thought about it that way, it felt more like this house was an important goal, a purpose for her. Not only that, it was nice to be able to show people she was a capable person too, that she had talents she wasn’t using. It’s the same way she felt whenever she started a new job, no matter how unimportant her position was. Steve always looked at her differently when she was working, with more respect, maybe. That always made her feel uncomfortable, because she wanted to be recognized for more than just the money she brought in, but at the same time she understood where he was coming from. When she looked at some of the men Steve was friends with, who had pretty crummy jobs and didn’t make a whole lot of money, she didn’t think much of them. But then again, she thought, they’re men, and they’re expected to take work seriously.
There was laundry to be done, so Sheila started doing that while still in her bathrobe. She didn’t feel like getting dressed today, even though she knew it would probably help her feel normal. She thought about those talk shows that said you should dress sexy for when your husband comes home, but sometimes it was hard to remember. It always felt like a slippery slope, because if she got too frumpy, Steve would probably want to have an affair, like any man would. She wondered sometimes if he’d already had one without her knowing about it. There was a period of time where they slept in separate bedrooms, but that didn’t last, and she always pretty much knew where he was.
She slammed the washer shut and started it going, and decided she didn’t want to think about infidelity. She did, however, make plans to call Steve on his lunch break, just to remind him she cared. The idea of him losing interest in her had made her nervous and the only way she knew to calm her fears about things like this was by expressing her undying devotion to Steve, even though she knew it probably came off as clingy or smothery.
The doorbell rang and Sheila remembered that she had scheduled the landscaper, Peter, to come trim the plants. She panicked momentarily, since she was wearing her bathrobe and nightgown, but quickly realized she was in the laundry room and that a fresh load of laundry was waiting in the dryer from the previous day. After a quick change and a glance in the mirror, she answered the door and welcomed Peter in. He’d been the family’s landscaping guy for at least a decade, and Sheila was always happy to see him. He had a transparency about him, a kindness that was honest instead of self-serving, that Sheila found refreshing and attractive. That combined with the fact that he was single made him seem kind of like a dream man, someone she liked thinking about during stressful times.
Sheila showed him to the backyard and watched him work for a minute before she remembered her manners and went to put the wet clothes in the dryer instead. She found herself thinking about someone on the talk show earlier, a sex doctor or something like that, who’d been talking about women’s orgasms. The whole conversation left Sheila feeling a little bit weird, because she’d never really known if that existed. She certainly hadn’t experienced anything like that, and she was a little bit dubious about the girls who said they had. It was almost like those girls were rubbing it in the faces of women like her who couldn’t have them.
She heated up her Olive Garden leftovers, but they weren’t as good after a night in the fridge. The breadsticks especially didn’t maintain the same texture at all.
After a while, Peter took a break and had a glass of iced tea with Sheila in the living room.
“How are you at designing landscapes for new homes?” she asked innocently.
Peter took a swig and then asked, “Why, do you know someone who’s moving?”
“It’s me and Steve! Are you surprised?”
Peter shrugged.
Sheila got up to refill his glass. “Of course, not right away. We’re going to start construction on a new house somewhere on the edge of town probably, where there isn’t so much traffic and we can get a little bit more nature. So I was thinking, maybe you could help me design the landscaping for the new house.”
“Sure, no biggie. You and your husband just let me know when the construction gets close to being done,” Peter said, standing up.
“Well actually, I was thinking maybe we could meet sooner than that, and maybe you can give me some feedback on the house plans we’re putting together.”
“What, like the blueprint? I don’t know anything about contracting.”
“No, of course not, just from an aesthetic standpoint. I just want an honest opinion from somebody I trust who can tell me if it’s the kind of place they would want to live in,” Sheila said, busying herself in the kitchen.
“Well yeah, let me know. Listen, I’m going to finish up in the backyard, but it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“No problem at all! Take your time!” Sheila called out as Peter went back outside, sliding the patio door shut behind him. After she finished emptying the dishwasher, she called Carol up and asked if she wanted to meet for lunch. Carol said maybe the next day and hung up pretty quickly. Sheila knew that tone, which Carol only used when she’d been fighting with her husband. Their marriage hadn’t been doing all that well lately.
Sheila didn’t understand the fighting thing. She was proud to tell people that she and Steve almost never fought. It seemed like some people got into patterns of bickering that couldn’t be broken, or they just grew up arguing and one day switched their parents for their spouse. But beyond that, she and Steve agreed on most things, and when they didn’t, like about sending the boys to church camp, it was usually Steve who would give in first. She didn’t have to do much. After she gave him the silent treatment long enough, he would usually see how much the issue was upsetting her and cave. But most of the time they thought the same way, like how they both thought the new house was a good idea. And most importantly, they both wanted the best for their family.

Sheila finally caught up with Carol two days later, and since it was Friday night, Carol proposed they go dancing. Sheila didn’t have anything hip to wear, but Carol said if she wore all black she’d look fine. After a number of nervous clothing changes, Sheila gave up and put on her regular long dress that she always wore.
She picked Carol up so that she could be the designated driver, and they went to a nightclub that Sheila had never heard of, but her first impression of the place wasn’t all that great. It looked a little bit seedy, and there were a lot of young people smoking cigarettes outside. But she remembered something she’d read about how it was good to try something new every day, so she straightened herself up and tried to look confident.
Everyone seemed a lot younger than them, but Carol didn’t seem to mind. She started drinking shots with a younger man almost immediately, and Sheila wondered if it had been a good idea to come. But then Carol came back to the table looking aggravated, because apparently the younger man had gotten fresh on the dance floor. Sheila asked if Carol wanted to go someplace quieter, but Carol said there was a room upstairs where they would be able to hear each other.
After buying another expensive Diet Coke, Sheila followed Carol up a dark staircase to a room that smelled like sweat and spilled beer. They sat down on a questionable couch and Carol set her drink down with a look that Sheila didn’t recognize.
“Chuck is leaving me,” she finally said, to which Sheila could do nothing but blink. “He’s been seeing somebody else for a while, I guess. Karen. I met her at the company picnic. I gave her my recipe for three bean salad, that bitch.”
“Oh Carol, I don’t know what to say,” Sheila said, regaining her composure somewhat. “I didn’t think it would be true.”
Carol downed half of her drink. “Well come on, he’s been acting sketchy for a while. Someone on TV said, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…”
“Then what?”
“Then it’s probably a duck, I think is what they mean.”
“Hey Sheila, I’m gonna go bum a smoke from one of those kids out front. You want to come with?”
“No, I’ll stay here. I get a little bit asthmatic.”
“Suit yourself,” Carol said as she got up, taking her drink with her.
Sheila sat trying to digest the information while she stared at a neon beer sign in the window with a lady sitting on the moon. It was a moment before she realized somebody was talking to her.
“Excuse me?”
Sheila looked up and saw the sleazy man from the end of the bar the other night, when she’d had a drink with Steve. He was pointing to her empty soda glass.
“I was wondering if I could buy you another one of whatever you’re having.”
Sheila remembered that she’d spent all but two dollars on her last Diet Coke, and thought, there’s no harm in letting him buy a lady a drink. So she told him what she was drinking, and he went to get it for her. It was kind of a nice feeling.
When the man returned with her soda and a beer for himself, he asked permission to sit. Sheila said okay but that her friend would be back in a minute.
“Let me introduce myself. I’m Carl Monroe,” he said, extending his hand. Sheila shook it and introduced herself back, but only her first name. “I saw you in the bar with your husband,” he went on, “and I just wanted to say congratulations on your new house. Must be awfully exciting.”
“It is exciting, thank you. We feel like we should do it now, while we can still enjoy it. I mean, the kids are out of the house, we’re in a stable situation more or less, so there’s really no better time,” she said, realizing that she was talking fast.
“Well that’s wonderful, I wish you good luck. I’ll leave you to enjoy your evening.” He shook Sheila’s hand again and went back downstairs, just as Carol was coming back up.
As Carol took a seat, she said, “You know what will be one benefit of dating again at my age? I don’t have to use birth control! This factory is closed for business.”
“Well shouldn’t you still worry about diseases?”
“Come on, not unless I’m sleeping with twenty year olds. Which, who knows, I may be,” Carol said, scanning the crowd as she sucked her vodka drink through its tiny straw.
Sheila said she wasn’t feeling well and wondered if Carol would mind if they left. Carol said she’d get a ride home and not to worry about her, so Sheila left but requested a follow up phone call to make sure she got home safe.
On the ride home, Sheila kept seeing Carol’s face. It seemed like her separation from Chuck had changed her into another person overnight, like a priest who quits the order and becomes a party animal or a playboy. The whole thing left Sheila feeling strangely adrift, like things were so out of order they could never be set right again. But then she reminded herself that it was Carol who was suffering here, and that she should really give her a present or a card or something. To have the rug pulled out from under you like that after so many years of marriage must be just awful, she thought.
She pulled into the garage and saw that Steve was already home. He usually stayed out late on Fridays with his poker buddies, so the sight of his car took Sheila aback a bit. She went inside and dropped her keys in an old hubcap, a signal that she was home. Steve called out from the living room that he was in there.
When Sheila came into the living room, Steve stood up and held out a wrapped gift. Sheila, unused to such displays, wondered if she had forgotten a holiday. But when she opened it, she saw a chunk of lawn.
“Please tell me you didn’t buy us his and hers cemetery plots,” she said.
Steve laughed and poked the turf in the box. “That is a piece of our new plot of land. That is, if my offer goes through.”
Sheila hugged Steve and he whirled her around. She didn’t even care that the dirt and grass was getting everywhere.
“That was awfully fast!”
“I was too excited to wait. Once I saw the land, I knew I didn’t want anyone else to get their hands on it,” Steve said. “It was the fourth plot I looked at. There’s a creek five minutes away.”
“When can I see it?”
“We can take a look tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Steve,” Sheila said, with tears suddenly in her eyes.
“You know I love you to death, I’ll do anything to make you happy,” Steve said, winking. He gathered Sheila into his arms and, for a minute, all was right with the world.

Weathering the High Life: A Short Story by Laura

Interest was soaring in the little company Jim founded on his tenth day out of jail. It wasn’t much, just a way to pay the bills with a little ad revenue here and a membership fee there, but once word spread that he was giving away free cameras as a promotion, all hell broke loose. People really liked their free crap, he discovered. You could get them to do just about anything once they had their hands on some swag, no matter how tacky or easy to obtain.
Now it was time to move on to the next venture, the next mountaintop, because he felt like he was starting to slide down his current peak and would soon be tumbling into the ravine. Any day now, opinion could change and the offers would start dropping until he couldn’t get arrested at a networking meet-up, and so the time to sell was now. But like any good gambler (and thanks to the time he’d spent on the inside, he was indeed a pretty good gambler), he didn’t want to fold too quickly, even if he was more or less bluffing.
In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait, and continue to maintain traffic and exposure for his dumb little corner of the market. He didn’t have much to offer in terms of services, not being particularly gifted in programming or even writing, so he decided on a website that would mostly involve letting the users create their own damn content, bit by bit. That meant that he spent a lot of his time cleaning out the garbage, deleting threads and all that. People could be such dicks online. He didn’t use the website himself, because he wasn’t really that interested in the internet, and after working with the damn thing all day the last thing he wanted to do was spend his free time using it.
Everyone in jail said this was the way to make money on the outside these days, and even though the absurdity of taking financial advice from those guys was not lost on Jim, it would seem they knew what they were talking about. At first, of course, times had been tight. He didn’t know if the website would be worth his time, and had started working for a media agency instead for a while. But that was a bust, and while he was sorting through the rubble of that venture and planning his next move, his trickle of website traffic turned into a flood, something he had to scramble to keep from busting the gates of his site wide open. After a while there was no more time for other projects, because the site consumed him wholly.
He got to drinking a lot after the first couple of months, partly because he spent all his time at home and there wasn’t much else to do, but the stress of keeping up with the company 24/7 made him feel kind of like a TV doctor as well, strung out and delirious, working endless shifts that sometimes ended in frustration. Eating and reading about the sea made him feel better, and he’d gotten kind of into cooking for himself instead of ordering in all the damn time. He now could brag that he made a mean chili, from a recipe he developed himself with two kinds of beans and real chili peppers. Things like cooking and watching cable made him feel okay for a while, but inevitably, the project would call him back and he’d be stressed out and miserable again. It wasn’t all the time that he felt like crap, but it was enough that he’d started actually drinking during work hours, which made for some bad decisions on occasion.
While Jim sat on his apartment balcony one night, writing new business venture ideas in a notebook and sometimes checking his mobile device for new messages and notifications, drinking a whiskey in an emptied out jam jar he’d thought was nice, taking in the view of the opposing balcony where a woman was painting her toenails, thinking about himself as a pretty cool and accomplished guy, he decided there might be money in sandwiches. He’d always made a killer sandwich, everyone told him so. And nowadays, with so much attention focused on the food scene, it was easy to create a buzz around a new place. He remembered once passing by an enormous line of 200 people or more waiting to get into a little hole in the wall lunch place. He asked someone what it was about and they said the food joint was giving away free sandwiches for four hours. Jim almost considered waiting in line because he was fairly broke at the time, but instead continued on his way.
So it wouldn’t be that much of a leap to assume that his free camera trick could work for food as well. Once he spread word to the culinary blogs that his establishment was giving out, say, a free sandwich and beer for one day only, the crowds would come flocking, and his eatery’s name would be out in the press, and if he did his job right they’d all see what excellent food he served and come back again and again. He’d just have to try and keep his name out of it.
Jim sucked the last of the whiskey off his ice cube and withdrew the bottle from his side, where it was sitting on the balcony floor next to an ashtray and the stub of a cheap cigar he’d gotten at the corner store because he felt like one and was too lazy to go all the way to a tobacconist. It was probably intended more for use by marijuana smokers in need of a blunt wrap than cigar connoisseurs, but he’d gotten use to low quality tobacco products in jail and didn’t have very high standards anymore, not like he did before he went to jail.
When he thought about the things he took for granted before his six years, he wondered how he even lived with himself. He was so spoiled, always requesting the high end vodka, as if the well wouldn’t taste the damn same. He would eat at these fancy-ass restaurants, getting appetizers and desserts as if it were no thing, treating everyone at the table, encouraging them to bring their friends and dates, and then also picking up the tab at the bar afterwards, and the bar after that. He would spend thousands of dollars on clothes, to the point where he couldn’t even remember where or when he got half of his shirts. He had so many damn ties, and half of them would go out of style before he even had a chance to wear them. Same thing went for shoes and slacks, and definitely for furniture. He was always redesigning his apartment to look like something he’d seen that he liked, and had gone through about three color schemes since he’d moved in there.
That was his old apartment, of course. Now he lived in a totally different part of town, one the old Jim wouldn’t have been caught dead in on a Saturday night.
People could be really cruel about things like jail time. Just because his job title was inmate doesn’t mean his life was all that different on the inside. He worked hard, had to pay for his time, almost like rent, and he ate shitty prepared food and watched TV before suffering from insomnia. The only thing that was really different was that in jail he had a roommate. He’d always valued his privacy, but to tell the truth, it was nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day in a place like that. He probably would’ve gone mad without the company.
Now, shackled to his computer, he felt more alone and imprisoned than ever, sometimes. The courts had rejected his request for house arrest, which was probably a good thing, because serving his time like a regular Joe helped to restore his image somewhat in the aftermath of the whole thing. It went from scandal to yesterday’s news, which it probably wouldn’t have if the papers were talking about his grocery bills and how nice his apartment was and all that. During his trial, before he was locked up, the paparazzi were all over him about that stuff, snapping a picture and writing a damning headline if he so much as bought a roll of toilet paper. If he was eating a sundae, they’d probably write “Sundae blood money sundae!” Those goddamn pricks.
Ignoring the papers was impossible during that fucked up time. It was like there was a big red target on his head and the whole country was hurling judgment and criticism and epithets at him. It certainly seemed like the whole country, though the scandal probably didn’t register with kids under a certain age and those who didn’t keep up with the news, so at least that was a plus. Seniors especially seemed to be bothered, which figured because old people didn’t have anything better to do than bitch and moan and write letters to the goddamn editor.
Jim relit his cigar stub and released a heavy smoke-filled sigh as he looked at the woman across the way again. She was inside now, watching TV, and her robe was half open. He sucked on the glowing cigar stub while idly watching her breast rise and fall with each breath. She wasn’t particularly attractive or his type, but seeing a woman unaware of the male gaze upon her was a new experience for him. The women he’d associated with in his more naïve days were as artificial as they were cold, and he’d never been sure whether all their preening and posing was meant to lure him or his bank account. They’d only ever drink vodka tonics, purportedly because it wasn’t as fattening as other drinks. Then, after the club closed, they’d always want to go out for French fries and greasy appetizers. He never understood how that worked.
When he brought the whiskey bottle back up to his glass for another refill, he realized there was only a mouthful left in the bottle, so he re-extinguished the cigar, stood up with a grunt, and reentered his apartment through the squeaky sliding door. He reminded himself to put some WD-40 on that at some point as he went to the fridge and surveyed its contents. All he could find was a six pack of Miller High Life with one can missing. He picked it up by its empty plastic ring and hauled the whole thing back to the balcony. As he resettled down in his patio chair and cracked one of the cans open, he looked back over at the woman’s apartment he’d been staring at, but she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she was in the bathroom.
Jim pulled out his phone and started flipping through digital photos until he got to the one he was looking for: Carrie, posing with him in Greece. She was the one he felt sorry about. Most of the other girls he’d been involved with were just that: girls. Not necessarily in age, although he rarely delved into the over-30 crowd, but in the sense that all of their ambitions, interests, and hang-ups seemed incredibly childish to him. So when the inevitable accusations started—he was more interested in work than them, he was unemotional, he messed around with other women—he could bolt and not feel too guilty. But with Carrie it was a lot sadder than that, and he found himself wondering if it was his fault, if he should have tried harder not to be such an asshole.
Carrie was the type of woman you couldn’t find online. He’d tried. He wasn’t that big a fan of online dating, but nowadays it was hard to get out and find somebody in real life. Before, there were events and cocktail parties every day of the week, and everyone he knew was already going out for coke-fueled nights on the town so it was easy to tag along. Most of those friends and colleagues were history now. Either he was on their shit list, or they were too embarrassed to be seen with him. Same thing went for the girls in his black book. Carrie was the one woman he hadn’t tried to reconnect with after he got out, because he felt like he’d put her through enough already. Usually when a woman said she wanted to marry him, it was a red flag that she was after his money or especially needy, but with Carrie, he actually believed her. Of course, he wigged out and pushed her away just the same. Sometimes when he wasn’t chasing after some woman’s online dating profile version of herself, he turned to internet porn. He certainly felt above it, and only indulged once a month or so, but in the same way courting someone online gave him a thrill of connecting with somebody voyeuristically from a distance, porn let him back in on the world of sex without having to establish actual, humiliating communication. Opening his next can of High Life, he looked back at the window and saw the woman was back, watching TV and reclining this time. He couldn’t see much except the top of her head, but her presence put him at ease.
As the night wore on, Jim kept thinking about his idea for a sandwich joint, and how a simple, honest job like that would do wonders for him. He’d have to pay off his investors before he started sinking money into a new venture, of course, but that had never been a problem in the past. And getting funding for the new place would be a piece of cake, with all his connections in the restaurant scene. Maybe he could even talk his current investors into accepting an ownership stake in the new business in lieu of cash. He might have to set his prices higher at first, but as long as he paid attention to his branding and kept an eye on the trends, he could pull it off. If people were convinced that his sandwiches were a status symbol or a luxury item, they’d pay whatever he wanted them to. But that would only be until he got an established customer base, and then he could lower prices, or even better, spin off a cheaper version of the same brand.
He hoped nothing would go wrong with the site tonight, so he could finish his five pack in peace. Tomorrow he’d have to bust his ass to make up for all this lost time, but until then, he was on a break. If something bad did happen, he’d hear it soon enough from his primary investor, who acted more like his parole officer sometimes. He rattled the last of the beer in its can and swigged the dregs, swallowing with a foul face. He wasn’t a huge fan of cheap beer, but that’s about all they sold in the deli downstairs, and he was trying to save money. He still splurged on the odd import at restaurants and bars, but now he saved it for special occasions.
Expensive beer wasn’t the only thing he’d cut back on. When he went shopping for the house or for food, he used to buy the upscale version of everything, not because it tasted better or lasted longer, but because he thought he was supposed to. He was always reading suggestions in magazines and newspapers, and he had to apply that knowledge somehow. When he reached for the $30 bottle of imported balsamic vinegar at the grocery store, it felt more like he was making the correct choice than being extravagant. And when he made reservations for opening night at some new restaurant, it was because if he didn’t, he’d be left out of a lot of conversations. And when he spent a fortune renewing his wardrobe every season, it’s because everyone he surrounded himself with knew when you were wearing last season, and judged you accordingly. His very existence was subject to scrutiny by at least a hundred people, and breaking those ties would mean losing everything. Or so he thought.
The last High Life can was starting to get light, and Jim wondered if he’d missed last call. He could usually get away with buying beer at the deli past the cutoff time, but he wasn’t sure if he needed to keep drinking. He looked over at the woman in the robe again, and saw that she was pouring herself a glass of wine. That settled it. He threw on his jacket and jetted downstairs to procure more beer.
Back on his balcony, he opened a Stella Artois, which was the highest-end beer the deli had to offer, and kept watching the woman. She drank slowly, which he liked. There was just something so appealing about a woman who only drank occasionally. Nothing could be further from what he was used to, namely party girls with insatiable appetites for booze, cocaine, and expensive weed. A lot of the guys in prison had similar stories, but most of those involved hookers. Not that there was much of a difference.
He realized he’d been staring hard at the woman in the robe, and that she’d walked onto her balcony and was now leaning on the banister looking back at him. Startled, he waved. She smiled and waved back, then took a sip from her wine glass. An odd thrill went through Jim, and he found himself wanting a cigarette for the first time in months. He found an old, half-empty pack that he kept for emergencies in a desk drawer, and brought it outside.
Lighting one of the stale cigarettes with his blue-flamed cigar lighter, he wondered if the woman was still looking at him. He looked back and saw that she was still standing there, but now she was looking down at the street. A fight was breaking out on the sidewalk, and other people were gathering around to watch the action. Jim puffed on his cigarette nervously and took a big swig from his Stella bottle. When he looked back up, the woman had gone inside and was closing her blinds.
Jim’s heart sank. Maybe next time.