by Lucas Klaukien
Christmas. Christmas in July.
He saw the black thing lying on the sidewalk, no one around to see. He picked it up. A thousand dollars. Just like that, just like that. He tossed the black thing over his shoulder and started to walk away. It was more than anyone could ask of him to contain the bounce in his step and the smile that beamed. The muscles in his face were locked in an expression that did not recall joy so much as … thrill.
Around the corner was a slight man (well, less a man than a male), walking franticly toward him scanning the pavement.
“Hello there,” the slight man said, his tenor recalling the White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland, “excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me with something.”
“No,” the smiling man said and continued past the slight one without so much as a backward glance.
“Well,” the slight man continued, “have you seen a black wallet, lying on the ground anywhere around here?”
“No,” the still smiling man said as his pace quickened.
The smile did not reach the man’s eyes. It was an almost reflex reaction to good fortune. An impulsive thing, unnatural in its generation. The slight man would not forget the smile that conquered the man‘s mouth but not his eyes.
The slight man sniff, sniff, sniffed the air, caught the smiling man’s scent.
The smiling man shoulder checked all the home. No one saw. No one knew what great fortune he had.
Over the course of the many days and nights that followed, the smile on the fortunate man’s face sagged and sagged until the corners of his lips found their original position below the mainline of his mouth. He grew suspicious and short tempered in the face of inquisitiveness. Friends, co-workers, even his parents found his presence unreasonably tense for the most part and unbearable for the other part. The Fortunate Man couldn’t avoid it though, he tensed up every time anyone asked, “where’d you get the new jacket?” or “new shoes? How much did those set you back?” So, instead of answering, he just grew agitated. Agitated to the point where they thought twice about asking him anymore questions. Soon, his was a world of silence, dinner was a thing characterized by knives scraping on porcelain and loud smacks of chewing, but not conversation. His eyes would dart back and forth between his parents, who had come to visit.
“I like the new tablecloth, son,” his little old father said. But he said nothing, never responding to questions or allegations because he knew better. He was smart enough to realize that they were trying to nail him, trying to appeal to his vanity but he’d never fail himself. He’d never reveal the true origin of his new fortune. All the while too, there was something else that made him tense. It wasn’t guilt.
Eyes. Always eyes on him, always watching, always hiding. On his front step he felt them weighing in on him, spying with oppressive leaden clarity. On his way to the market his shoulders grew heavy with the burden.
“Boy, you’ve been eating like a king lately,” his kindly old grocer would say. The only response he’d give was an icy stare. You mind your own business old man, he thought, grabbing his bags with much purpose.
In today’s world a thousand bucks doesn’t stretch as far as it used to and there soon came the time when his newfound wealth had all but dried up. Indeed he had eaten like a king for two weeks and wore the finest new clothes on his back, the kind of finery he had long fantasized about. But there comes a time when all adventures must end and unearned wealth must surely waste away. So, with a wisp of melancholy and a dollop of nostalgia he picked his keys up from the table to set about on his last trip to the corner store to spend his remaining money on a pack of gum.
It was a warm night, the kind of humid air that made him itchy under his shirt. The kind of humidity that makes one feel hairier and heavier than they really are. Yet, somehow he felt a kind of relief.
Maybe he had felt guilty all that time, though he wouldn’t know why. But the eyes were off him, the burden was lifted. He began to feel like his old self again. Slowly the smile began to creep slowly back up from the corners of his mouth. Even the angry barking of the dogs as he passed his neighbors yards could not stop the momentum of his surging lips.
He turned round the corner and who else was there to greet him but the slight man he had seen that fateful night.
“Hello, sir,” the slight man said with a confidence that belied his stature.
The smiling man said nothing and continued to walk past the slight man.
“I know you took my money,” the slight man said, “and I’m giving you this last opportunity to give it back.”
“What,” the smiling man said, stopped dead in his track, “what did you just say to me?”
“I said, if you give me what’s left of my money, I won’t bother you again.”
The smiling man’s heart began to pound and race. He knew he got into trouble every time somebody got his blood up but he didn’t care.
“This is your last chance,” the slight man uttered with trembling voice. The smiling man was no longer smiling and he wondered if the slight man had a gun. He turned around to face the slight man, thoughts racing, heart still pounding, blood coursing, the slight man approached him and began to spit, “pth, pth, pth. Hair in my mouth.”
The slight man removed his glasses as his upper lip curled like a rabid dog. The clouds rushed overhead as though on rails revealing a thinning bright area. His back arched and fingers clenched into hideous claws. In a tone too deep for a man of his stature he growled, “I work hard…I work hard!”
At the office he put up with all of it. Co-workers dumping off the most tedious articles of paperwork at his office with chummy smiles and good natured quips and jibes. They didn’t respect him. The way the water cooler, for long moment the center of social activity, would clear out the moment he decided to get thirsty. The way he saw them gather around Sally Westrum, arms casually rested on the corners of cubicles, glance over from across the office in his direction and try to hide their laughter after he had asked her to see a production of Romeo & Juliet. The way he overheard Frank Catcher brag about the night he spent with her. The way he overheard Chip Dunsmuir brag about the night he spent with her. His perfect hair and good posture. The way he spent the Christmas party in the corner of the room, hanging out with the fake Christmas tree. And now he was being forced to put up with it outside the office. The way he needed the money. The way he’d had to bury his dog the day before because he suddenly could no longer afford the operation Chuckles desperately needed. The line was drawn in the sand. It all ended here and now.
The clouds parted revealing the perfect opalescent pearl of the moon.
The adrenaline coursing through his body he lunged at the smiling man who hunched no longer smiling and covered in a course mat of fur. The shirt he had bought with the slight man’s money ripped off his now hulking back and his face a snout that really was that of a rabid dog … or a wolf. And the eyes, the eyes were human but there was something about them something cold and distant, emotionless, eyes that didn’t smile.
The next day the smiling man felt great. Felt better than he had in about a month. He stopped on his way down the street and noticed people congregating along a line of police tape, the police gathered around what looked like black paint splattered on the sidewalk.
“Hmm,” the smiling man said to himself as he chewed his gum with a newfound vigor, “the black stuff looks like dried blood.” He walked away with his hands in his pockets, blowing a bubble.
ONE MORE SMOKE FOR THE ROAD
9 years ago