Flopping like a carp…a Mike Valentine tale

This post is the 3rd installment in a series.You can catch up here and here

Mike had just collapsed on the conference room floor.

His co-workers swarmed around him anxiously barking questions. Are you alright? Where does it hurt? Can I get you anything? Can you talk? Mike Valentine wanted to answer all of them but the pain in his side was crippling and he couldn’t get the words out. The muscles below his rib cage seized, failed to relinquish their grip. He couldn’t breathe. He clenched his teeth and tried to draw breath. His GM reached down and sat him in an upright position against the wall and handed him a glass of water. Mike leaned forward, grabbing his ankles, trying to stretch the spasm away. Finally, the pain subsided. Mike sat against the wall, sipping the water and tried to regain his composure. He looked up, the entire room was staring at him.
“It’s all over.” Mike said. “Let’s continue.”
“Are you nuts?” his GM said. “You’re going to the hospital.”
Someone in the background offered to call an Ambulance. Mike resisted, insisting that it was over and he was fine.
“Have you had that happen before?” the controller asked.
“Not like that.” He lied. The truth was that he had. Not as bad but similar. He had mentioned them to his Doctor and they could find no explanation. Just one more thing to deal with.

“Well, we’re driving you to the hospital then. I’m not giving you a choice.”
Mike dropped his shoulders in defeat as he was pulled upright. He allowed his coworkers to take his arms as they ascended the stairs, walked outside and got him into a waiting van.

By the time they had reached the local hospital Mike felt fine. He didn’t want to go in. He had been the local hospital route before. It was always the same thing, they would run some tests and send them to his own doctor. Nothing would be accomplished except the waste of a lot of time. A doctor would come out and ask if he knew that he had Kidney issues.

There was a bigger picture here shaping up. Mike’s GM was going in with him. When the words “Kidney Disease” are spoken, it will be the first time his company knew that he was sick. Two hours before, he was bulletproof. That façade was about to crumble.

As they entered the building entrance, he tried to get his manager to leave him. He wasn’t changing his mind.

The check-in process was fairly quick. It was early afternoon, the ER wasn’t busy. Being in an affluent community didn’t hurt as well, Mike’s home hospital was often flooded with drunks and victims of violent crimes. There wasn’t a lot of that in this sleepy Massachusetts town Mike mused. Within 15 minutes Mike was seen by the ER physician. He was asked a bunch of questions about his health history. They did a run-up of blood work. The ER doctor was clueless regarding the episode. Mike was not surprised, no one else had ever figured out why he had these attacks either. The Doctor scribbled on his board, muttered something to his attending Nurse and went on to another patient. Mike was left to make small talk with his GM until someone came back.

To his encouragement, his manager didn’t talk about the events of the previous hours. He instead shifted gears to talking about some of the business matters that he wanted to review in the now cancelled meeting. It was a relaxed conversation and they actually accomplished something. Before long the ER Doctor poked his head in.
“Are you aware…” time stopped for Mike, he knew exactly what was coming…3,2,1 BOOM
“that you have serious kidney failure?” Mike high-fived himself mentally, he  had called it.
“Yes, I am aware” he replied as he looked over at the furrowed brow of his boss.
“Are you being actively treated for it”? the doctor asked.
“Not as actively as I should, perhaps” Mike replied. “But here’s the thing, is it related to why I’m here?”
“Not that I know of” he replied.
“Then we’re done here unless you have some suggestions.”
“See your Nephrologist. If you have his contact information I’ll have your labs forwarded.”
Mike gave him what he asked for and they left.

It was a quiet car ride back to the office. Mike decided to just get it over with.
“I have Kidney Disease” he offered. “Now you know.”
“Well something has to be wrong with you, you were flopping around on the conference room floor like an epileptic Carp.”
They shared a laugh. Then Mike asked “Does it change anything?”
“Like what, you mean your employment status?”
“No.” Mike rephrased his question. “Is this something that I should have told you when you hired me?”
His manager didn’t flinch. “That’s why we have health insurance, you dumbass. How long have you had it?”
“Since I was a teenager. It’s unpredictable in its progression. I think it’s getting worse.”
“Do you think you should have told me on the interview?”
Mike stroked his goatee, stalling.
“Yes and no. It really hasn’t affected my work that I know of. I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t think about the what-if’s”. When I met you, I wanted you to see the man for the job, not some sick guy. Does that make sense?”
His manager nodded. “So now we know” he said.

They drove the rest of the way in relative silence. They drove through the security gate and as a courtesy he was dropped off at the door. It was 4:30. Mike was thankful and he got out with the intention of going in, grabbing his bag and calling it a day. As he nodded a thank you for the ride Mike was asked
“Where does stress fit into all of this, you know, with the kidneys?”
“I don’t think it helps, I know that much. Why?”
“Because you’re wrapped tighter than a convenience store sandwich. You try to do too much. You’re the first one in, last one out. I’m not asking for that. Take it easy on yourself. You’re getting the job done.”
“Thanks. It’s how I’m wired.”
“No, that’s how Superman is wired. Your name is Mike, not Clark. Smarten up.” With that, he put the car in gear and drove to his reserved spot.

Mike went directly home for the first time in weeks. He had some things to think about.

Let’s hit the course… a Mike Valentine tale

this is a continuation of a post from last week. You can catch up here.

His brief moment of warmth towards Tracey over with, Mike Valentine vividly recalled how much she had fought him when he was hired. Tracey thought that she should be Sales Manager and for a while refused to even come into his office. She thought it should be hers. Little did she know that he was partially hired to “reign her in” and “get rid of her cleanly” if possible. It needed to be done. She had a well documented history of insubordination and she was so disliked by staff and customers alike that other auctions would thank Mike for having her, that she was driving business to them. Mike never lost sight of that when dealing with her. She was either going to get in step with his way, or she would be gone. Two years had already passed and he was no closer to getting rid of her than he was but he had some great success in curbing some of her bad habits.

Dismissing her from his mind, he again focused on his emails and his upcoming day. He heard the door of the office next to him bang and he realized that Bob was in. He grabbed the flyer for the golf tournament and went in to say good morning. With very little convincing, Mike left the office with a check request for 500.00 to buy a foursome and a list of potential dealers to invite. He had to move. The tournament was in 2 weeks. He had to make some calls. It took all of one hour to secure the foursome. He invited one active dealer rep and his owner, as an award for regular business. He then invited a dealer whose business he had been trying to secure for some time.

Mike was excited for the first time in what seemed forever. Golf tournaments were the biggest perk in sales while also serving as the ultimate means of securing clients. Mike constantly battled ringing phones and interrupting employees are the worst when visiting customers. On the golf course you have between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the size of the tournament, and you have their full attention for the entire time. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, it was a day off from work with pay and an expense account. As he walked back to his office he felt a spring in his step.

For the next 2 hours Mike finished his morning routine. He called his reps, discussed their game plans for the day, offered advice or suggestions as needed, asked if assistance was needed with any customers and generally made it known that he was paying attention. When he was satisfied that the reps were on the right track he finished his emails and prepared for the 11 AM Managers meeting.

Preparation was ingrained in Mike Valentine’s DNA. It wasn’t enough for him to know what was going on. He insisted on being prepared for any question, no matter how far out of left field it may come from. His manager had come to expect this from him, his memory of tiny yet important details had earned him the affectionate moniker of “Rain Man”, after the iconic 80’s movie. It was difficult to maintain this level of attention to detail but it was what, as his father always preached, “makes one man stand out more than another.” His dad didn’t say that as a statement of exceptionalism towards his boy, but instead to reinforce his belief that a man’s achievements in life define him.

At 10:55 Mike, feeling accomplished and prepared, folded up his manifold and made his way through the office to the stairs. As he started the ascent he felt winded after only a few steps. He paused, tried to catch his breath and not convey his condition to the coworkers walking by him on the stairs. He looked at his phone to pretend that he was reading an email while he caught his breath. Was he hung over? Was he dehydrated? Was he just out of shape? These questions danced through his head as he regained his breath. He finished the flight of stairs, paused outside of the already full conference room and waited until he wasn’t puffing before he went inside. When he walked in his GM sarcastically thanked him for joining the party. His co-managers snickered in unison.

The meeting consisted of Mike the GM, Bob the AGM, Mike, the Fleet lease manager, Office manager, Reconditioning shop manager and the Body Shop manager. Mike was in a decent mood and the meeting was smooth if not boring. Mike had little patience for the details of the margins, collection policy changes and oversight matters. He only cared if they were bringing in, and selling more cars than they were 1 year ago at that time. That was his job. Volume. But he listened along and chimed in when asked for his input.
He didn’t feel well and he feared that his face was showing it.
As the meeting turned to the Office Manager on his right, Mike was suddenly overcome by a sharp, stabbing pain in his left side. It hurt so instantly and intensely that Mike yelped loudly in pain. Not wanting to make a scene, he struggled to get up from his chair and make his way to the door. Two feet before he reached the door, his co-workers bleating at him as the waves of pain tore through him, Mike Valentine collapsed on the floor of the conference room.

More later…

Another day at the office…a Mike Valentine tale

Mike Valentine pulled his car into employee parking at 7:30 AM. Hung over with a sour stomach and a dull ache in his head, he was tempted to stay in his car. He couldn’t chalk today’s early arrival only to mere dedication, although he was in the mood to turn things around. It was also the fault of his good friend alcohol, who had begun to affect his sleep. While still wonderfully useful for knocking him out each night, remote in hand on the sofa, it had begun to affect his ability to stay asleep. He slept fitfully and often awoke before dawn, sometimes feeling as if he would be better rested if he had stayed up all night. Today, he had resigned himself to no sleep when he woke at 5 and decided to go to work.

Still, he was glad to be early. He had been dancing on the brink of tardiness lately and that was unacceptable to Mike. He was well-respected at his job for his work ethic. Part of his lore, over many positions, was that he was the first one in, and quite vocal about those who clocked in exactly on time. 15 minutes early is on time, on time is late…don’t ever forget it his father had always said. This mantra had served employers past and present well.

He walked through the parking lot, made some small talk with the security guard at the gate and went inside. He went about his morning ritual. He turned his computer on in his office and while it booted up he went to make a pot of coffee. He then went to the sales department “bullpen” where his reps sat and he collected the sales logs for the previous day. He expected his staff to have the previous day’s activity ready for him first thing each day. He was a flexible man in many areas but not this one. He wanted to know what his people were doing, when and how well they were doing it. He believed in accountability and he had a healthy fear of not knowing what was really going on. If Mike was never asked a question he couldn’t answer about anything in his department, it would be too soon.

Three reps had their reports in their outbox waiting for him, Tracey’s was not. He would have to deal with that today.  He scanned the reports as he walked through the dark office to the coffee pot, poured a tall mug of black coffee and headed to his office. The next part of his routine was to compare the sales logs to previous ones, stored in a neat folder on his desk, looking for the famous “mail-it-in” from his reps. His lengthy experience as a Sales Manager had taught him that employees get burnt out, tired of no’s and begin to write in false stops to pad their days work. Mike Valentine didn’t look for these to punish his reps, but instead to catch sagging performance and slumping morale before it became problematic. Unlike most managers, Mike wasn’t a hard ass. He was a nurturing, helpful “working manager” who stayed on top of things. He wanted his employees to succeed.

If he found a problem he would pull the rep in and talk to them, only disciplining if it is a recurrent problem. His method of detecting “rep fraud”, as he called it, was to make follow-up calls to customers thanking them for meeting with his rep. Occasionally he would hear “I didn’t meet with that rep yesterday” and Mike then knew he had a problem. His reps knew that he did this, some finding out the hard way, so it didn’t happen often. Today, everything checked out based upon his initial scan.

He then went to his emails. There were a bunch of interoffice memos, many of which had nothing to do with him. He responded to the ones that applied to his department and deleted the rest. One email, sent late last night was labeled Golf Tournament. Intrigued, he opened it. It was from one of his best and favorite dealers in Western MA, the area’s biggest Ford Dealer. Mike had struggled over the years to get a piece of their formidable business and he was moving in the right direction. He dreamed of getting all of it. His auction would really be on the map if such a high-profile dealer were to sell all of their cars at his auction. It sure wouldn’t hurt him professionally as well. The tournament was to benefit the Boys and Girls clubs in town, a charity that the owner was notoriously passionate about. Would he like to sponsor a foursome? Mike printed it and pushed it to the right side of his desk, he would ask his manager for permission when he got in.

Immersed in the remaining emails, he was interrupted by a knock at his closed door. He could see that it was Tracey by the mass of red hair visible through the small window of his office door. He told her to come in.
“Good morning” he said without looking up.
“Good morning” she replied. She handed him her sales log from yesterday. She was off the hook for today Mike thought to himself. “I went home from my final stop last night, it made more sense given where I was.”
“No worries” Mike replied. “What’s up for today?”
“I’m headed South today. I’m leaving now. I just wanted to get this to you.”
“I appreciate that. Call me from the road if you need anything.” Mike occasionally felt warm towards her despite their notoriously antagonistic relationship. Maybe she’s coming around, Mike thought to himself. Yeah, and if pigs fly out of my ass I’ll have free bacon for life.

She nodded and left the office.

more tomorrow…

 

Home sweet home…conclusion A Mike Valentine tale

Mike got up, his swollen legs screaming in protest, and moved to the sofa to sit beside his son. Lady dutifully followed and plopped down at his feet. He wrapped his arm around the boy and they watched TV. It wasn’t long before his wife appeared in the doorway and told D that it was bedtime. Mike looked at his watch. It was 9 already. He reminded himself that that’s what happens when you sit in a bar, dreading coming home. He told his wife that he would take care of bedtime. She gave him a sarcastic “thanks” and went back to the kitchen. He forced himself off of the sofa and motioned for D to follow him, told him to brush his teeth and put his pajamas on. He didn’t put up a fuss, he was a great kid.

He went upstairs with the boy, poking his head in his oldest daughter’s room. She was lost in a book. He went into her room, leaned in and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“I didn’t hear you come home” she said.
“Next time I’ll make more noise” he joked. He kissed her again. She gave him one of her famous smiles, the gap between her front teeth front and center. He loved that gap, it was cute and reminded him of her as a toddler, mugging for the camera. She was such a happy child. He also observed that she would need braces soon.
“Good job on your report card” he offered. “I’m proud of you.”
“Mom went ape on the boys.”
Mike could only imagine. Yet she took them out to dinner? It must have been her friend Lisa’s idea. Lisa’s kids probably got shitty report cards as well but she didn’t believe in disciplining her kids. She wanted to be their friends. Mark hated that she and his wife were so close. He thought Lisa was a terrible influence, but his wife fucking loved her. Almost to the point that he wondered if she switched teams. He chased all of that out of his head and returned his attention to his daughter.
“Jeez” he said. You couldn’t have saved the old man a chicken finger?”
She laughed. He kissed her again on the forehead and walked down the hall to the boy’s room where he found R at his desk, furiously scribbling on a notebook. He looked miserable.
“Hey bud” he said. “That’s enough for today, nothing will change overnight.”
“Mom is pretty mad.”
“I know. I already bumped into her. See the burn marks?” he said as he showed his bare forearm. It was a bad joke but Ry laughed. He wasn’t trying to denigrate his wife. He just wanted to cheer the kid up. It seemed to work. He sat with the boys as they went through their nightly routine of procrastination. Fearful of his wife getting angry at the time, he went to the banister and listened for signs of life. She was talking to Lisa, the toxic friend. No doubt talking about what an asshole she married.

He went back into the boy’s room and said goodnight. He made a couple of silly faces, drew a laugh and turned the light off. He went downstairs looking for his youngest daughter. He poked his head in her room, she was fast asleep. Shit, he thought. I didn’t see her at all today. He sat on the edge of her bed and just watched her breathe for a while. She looked so peaceful. She was the unplanned one but immediately shot up to I can’t imagine my life without her status. She was cuter than a duck wearing a hat. His heart welled. He got up and closed the door behind him and headed for his comfortable chair. He had to walk through the kitchen in order to get there and he ignored the glare of contempt his wife shot at him as she babbled into the phone.

As he sat down. Britt appeared in the doorway.
“My asthma is acting up. Can I do a treatment?”
Mike got up, went to the closet for the Nebulizer and a capsule of albuterol. He set it up, placed the mask on his daughter’s face and sat down beside her. The hum of the machine soothed him as he watched her, glued to the TV as the mist gently wafted from her breathing treatment. He had changed the channel to Nickelodeon and had found Spongebob. Perfect.

He let her stay with him for about 15 minutes after the treatment was done. He didn’t want the moment to end. He knew, whether she knew he did or not, that she wasn’t really having an asthma attack. It was her sneaky way of getting an extra half hour with her dad.

This, Mike Valentine thought to himself, this is the good stuff. The rest of it doesn’t matter. He squeezed his daughter tight and waited for her to fall asleep.

Home sweet home…a Mike Valentine tale

Mike Valentine pulled into his driveway a bit too fast. He heard the scraping of the undercarriage as it met the small dip at the end of his driveway. It was just another moment in his 15-minute drive that he was reminded of how reckless it was for him to have driven home. He was half in the wrapper. It occurred to him that he was driving a company vehicle, a DUI would equal no job and no car. Smart. He put the car in park, popped an Altoid in his mouth, took a deep breath and walked to his front door. Every night he tried to ignore the crumbling masonry adorning the walkway and the ugly door that desperately needed a coat of paint. It was his daily reminder that he lived in a house that he couldn’t afford to maintain. He was in over his head. He went in the house.

Right on schedule, his hyperactive Springer Spaniel tore around the corner and jumped all over him. He enjoyed this part of the day. A dog always loves you unconditionally. If only other people in my life were this happy to see me he mused. After Lady (named after the Disney dog of course) calmed down a bit Mark took off his shoes, stumbling slightly and went into the kitchen. His wife was sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of envelopes before her. Her face said it all. He was about to have the money talk. Mark reevaluated his condition and decided that he may not have drank enough.
“You could say hi, you know. You must have heard me come in” he said.
“We need to talk” she replied.
“Not now”, Mike said with a defeated tone. “I know where this is going. Talking about it isn’t going to make a money tree grow in the back yard.” He regretted his snarky tone as it left his lips.
“If not now, when?!” she yelled. He knew what was coming, She was boiling and she wasn’t in the mood for the verbal foreplay. She wanted to fight.
“I’m doing the best I can.” He knew she didn’t believe it and he wasn’t sure if he did either. “You don’t know what it’s like out there right now.” He tried to change the subject. “Anything for dinner?”
“We went out.”
“Of course, you did. After all, why would you eat any of the food that is in our fridge, we only spend $200 a week on groceries after all.” He immediately realized that he was a raging hypocrite, he was just out himself. And she hasn’t asked where he was and why he was late. Is it possible she doesn’t care? Yeah, he didn’t want the answer to that one.
“Fuck you.”
“Nice. Where are the kids?”
“In their rooms doing their homework. Report cards came out today and with the exception of Britt, the boys are looking at a long time in their rooms. Don’t bother them.”

Mike dutifully obeyed and left the room. He walked into the family room, plopped down on the plush cushion of his chair and turned the TV on. He peeled off his socks and put his feet up. His swollen ankles hurt like hell and without rolling up his pant legs he knew that his legs were swollen as well. As if he didn’t have enough shit to worry about, his condition was getting worse.

He noticed a change of light in the room and he looked to see his oldest boy D, in the doorway with a Miller Lite in his hand.
“I got you a ‘water bottle’ Dad” he said as he tucked the can under his arm and did his famous quotation fingers.
“Don’t you have homework to finish?”
“I’m done. Did mom tell you about the report card?”
“No specifics but she didn’t paint a rosy picture.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Mine, I mean. I can’t say the same for Ry.” He sat down next to his father, handed him the beer and said “The Sox lost.”
“Yeah, I saw.”
“Weren’t you at work?” Mike hated lying to his son.
“Between you and me I knocked off a little early.” He and D were close. D rarely told mom much of what he said when she wasn’t around. He wasn’t proud of that, he didn’t encourage it. The kid just favored his dad and somehow knew the politics of the household. Mike wished he didn’t. He also wished his kids didn’t bring him alcohol and joke that they were water bottles. He was some fucking example of a father. Yet his children loved him. Despite the fights they witnessed between he and their mother, all of the hurtful words that can’t be taken back, they seemed to understand him. He hoped the same for his wife, he didn’t want to be the favorite, he just wanted their love.

to be continued…

The bad day…conclusion

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. I welcome you to catch up here.

Mike had stepped outside to call his boss. Fortunately, he was only asked a question about a particular customer. Was Mike aware? Did Mike have a plan? When would Mike act on it? He was aware, he had no plan (he lied about that also), and he would act on it tomorrow. They exchanged pleasantries and ended the call. Mike looked around. The thought that his boss was on to him and sitting in a car across the parking lot waiting to bust him always occurred to him. It wasn’t an entirely unlikely scenario, managers spy on their employees all the time. He decided that at this very moment it would be a relief, shrugged it off and went back to the cold, non-judgmental beer patiently waiting for him inside.

Ninety minutes and 4 beers later Mike had still not called home. He mused that he would rather fill his asshole with honey and squat on an anthill then go home. The fighting about money was out of control. She wasn’t entirely wrong, Mike was clearly in a rut and he hated his own lack of effort to fix it. What bothered him was her methodology, and her timing.  She never let up and started with him at the worst times. So here he sat, avoiding…well…everything and everybody.

As Liz came over to offer him a refill Mike engaged her. “What was that about your brother you mentioned earlier?”

“Yeah, sorry about that. It was awkward as hell, I know. I said that he would love a hat like yours. He actually mentioned it to me a while back that he wanted one.”

“They’re available online and at the giftshop.” Mike explained. “Although they’re a bit pricey.”

“He doesn’t have a computer. He lives in VT and he’s broke.”

Mike was not proud of the next thought that popped into his head. The word “deadbeet” had come to mind. “Sorry to hear that.” Mike offered.

“He’s dying of Testicular cancer.” She said. She was tearing up. “I want to visit him but I can’t get out of my shifts this weekend.”

Mike was floored. He had successfully beaten Testicular Cancer 15 years earlier. He had been lucky. His heart ached for Liz. The conversation ended on its own awkward volition and Mike drank some more. When he finally decided to go home, he summoned Liz for his bill.

She brought it to him and he again offered condolences for her brother. She thanked him and walked away. He waited for her to walk through the swinging doors to the kitchen. Once she did, Mike quickly took his hat off, stuffed the bill and money in it and left the hat on the bar. He walked out as fast as he could.

As he sat in his car, composing himself for the fresh hell he was about to drive home to, Liz appeared at his driver’s door. She knocked. He opened the window.

“You shouldn’t have done that. I can’t possibly accept the hat.” She was crying.

“Yes, you can. And you will. Go to VT. Fuck your shift, fuck your boss, fuck all of it. Go see your brother.” He paused. “Give the hat to your brother and I hope he will feel better on some level.”

“Thank you so much.” She stammered. “It means so much to me.”

“Exactly.” Mike Valentine said. “To me it’s just a hat. To you it’s something that actually matters. I’ll be here this weekend, I hope I don’t see you.”

She forced a small laugh.“I hope not also. Thank you again.”

Mike smiled at her and put the window up without saying a word. Liz walked back inside.

For the first time that day he had done something that felt right. He liked the feeling. It was refreshing, invigorating. He wanted more of it. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

The bad day…a Mike Valentine tale

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. She had startled Mark Valentine. Despite the fact that a drink was all that he had wanted for the last 2 hours, he had been distracted by the Sox game on the corner TV.

“Good evening, Liz. What are the beer specials this evening?” God, how he hated to ask that question. The Crown Royal bottle on the top shelf was waving and calling his name but he was on a copper budget. His gold tastes would have to deal with it.

“Coors Light and Bud Light draft are $2.50 each.” She seemed to be on edge tonight, not as friendly as usual. He would know, he was as regular as Norm from Cheers.

“Bud Light, please.”

“You got it.”

Within seconds, a tall mug of cold, GMO infused, foamy piss water was in front of him accompanied by a basket of tortilla chips with Salsa. For anyone else, that’s another $2.50 but Liz always took care of him. He took a long sip of his beer and scanned the bar. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Maybe a new face or something to indulge in his favorite past-time. People watching. His scan was nearly complete as he turned his gaze back to the Sox game.

As he did so he inadvertently caught the gaze of the guy sitting beneath the TV. He was careful to not stare back but instead focused on the TV. He occasionally found himself darting his glance at the man and each time his gaze was met. This annoyed him. Why does every dickwad sitting under the TV think I’m looking at them? Where the fuck else am I supposed to look?  He glanced over again and the fellow looked particularly hostile. Mike was not in the mood for a confrontation, it was the very last thing he wanted after today. So, he chose to look straight ahead at the mirror behind the bottle rack. As cranky and depressed as he was when he came in, it was now worse. He was disgusted by the round face and bloodshot eyes that stared back at him. Relax, Mike. The mirror adds 15 pounds.
Yeah, but how many mirrors am I in right now?

He decided that he had to do what he hated most, play with his phone like “one of those” people. Mike Valentine was opinionated and old-fashioned and the phone thing conflicted him. He needed it and hated it at the same time. He saw the cell phone as an Orwellian nightmare, herefused to be glued to it and he an had open disdain for those who were. But in this case, drinking alone at 3:45 on a Tuesday afternoon it really was no time to stand on principle. As he pulled the phone from his pocket he saw that he had missed 3 calls. 1 from his boss and 2 from home. He made a mental note to call his boss back. He chugged the remainder of his beer and motioned to Liz for another. She was there with a fresh one immediately.

“Nice hat.” Mike had forgotten that he was wearing his Red Sox Scally cap. He loved the hat and got a lot of feedback whenever he wore it.

“Thanks Liz. I like it a lot.”

“Get it at Fenway?” she asked.

“Yup, thieving bastards got me good on it.” He had, on a whim gone into the gift shop at Fenway Park, home of his beloved Red Sox while on business in Boston looking for that very hat and paid stupid money for it.

“It looks good on you. It’s a keeper.” She smiled at Mike, there was a sadness behind it. As she walked away she said “My brother would love it.”

The comment seemed odd to Mike, almost as if forced. Less conversational and with intention. Whatever. Remembering that he had to return his boss’s call he pushed his stool back and stepped outside. He walked to the end of the concrete walkway to escape any noise from the patrons entering and leaving. Mike knew from experience that this was the best spot to call his boss and lie to him. The nature of the call would dictate how big the lie will be. Mike hated this part, and it was of no comfort that he had done it a lot lately.

Mike Valentine was in a rut at work. His customers weren’t busy, so consequently his portfolio was suffering. His competition was killing him and Mike was worn down by the constant “No’s” from his customers by about noon each day. Deep down he knew that he was a great salesman. But he had lost faith in his product, his managers and most important, in himself. He hated going to work lately. He hated going home also. Especially when the money wasn’t coming in. Every day that he could knock off early he did. Without permission, of course, which is why he was dreading making the call. If asked where he was, what would he say?  He wasn’t where he was supposed to be so whatever he said it will be a  lie, a lousy fucking lie that he thought he was above. He took a deep breath and dialed his boss.

to be continued…

the Lake Walk…conclusion A Mike Valentine tale

this is the third and final installment in a series. I hope you enjoyed it. To catch up, you can here and here.

As he got closer he could see that it was a boy, maybe 8 years old standing near his car. He must have seen Mike approaching yet he made no move to retreat or even acknowledge his approach for that matter. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up, something seemed off about this kid.

“Hey kid”, he called out when he was less than 20 feet away, “can I help you?”
The boy was gazing intently at the sky. Without looking down or away he replied, “no Mike, I’m just fine thank you.”

Shocked, Mike Valentine could only respond,” how do you know my name?”

“It’s not important”, the little boy replied, still not moving his gaze from the sky. Mike looked in the direction of the boy’s gaze and all he could see was the setting sun.

“What are you looking at like that, kid. You’re kinda creeping me out.”

The boy, without shifting his gaze, said, “I’m looking at the sky. Do you ever just look up at the sky? It’s quite beautiful actually. The clouds, the birds. The sun, the moon. Did you ever look at the top a tall tree and just wonder what it’s like to be a bird looking down?”

“That’s a lot of questions kid. And yes, I suppose I have. Well, I know that I used to.” Mike was reminded that he was talking to a stranger, an unaccompanied minor at that. “Are you lost? It is getting dark.”

“No, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

Stunned and at a loss for his next move, Mike leaned against his car to stretch his legs and assess the situation. It was more than just a little odd. He studied the boy. His clothes looked like they were from another generation. His hair looked like the “bowl cuts” his mom used to give him. It then occurred that the boy must have parents looking for him. But he sure didn’t seem scared or lost, he looked oddly comfortable.

He decided to play the quiet game and see who made the next move. He continued to stretch his tired body. Minutes passed and the boy said nothing. Mike was tempted to leave but his curiosity instincts were piqued and instead walked over and stood next to the boy. ‘Ok”, he said, “I give, what are you looking at?”

“Í told you, I’m looking at the sky. It’s quite beautiful isn’t it?”

“Yes”, Mike replied. “We’ve established that. But you haven’t looked away once. Aren’t you bored looking at the same thing?”

Without hesitation, the boy shot back. “Bored? That’s what kids today are. Always need to be occupied and entertained. Not me.”

Kids today! The statement resonated with Mike. Did he just say that!

“Aren’t you part of ‘kid’s today’?” There was something really strange about this kid. He was tempted to end this and take off. His phone had rung two more times since he got to his car and he knew that every ignored call was throwing logs on the shit bonfire that awaited him at home. In spite of this, he remained glued to his spot.

“Let’s just say that I’m here, but I don’t belong here” the boy deftly replied.

“Then where do you belong?” Mike replied, despite feeling that he was better off not asking.

“A different time”, the boy exclaimed as he lowered his fixed gaze for the first time, turned his head and stared directly at Mike. Mike felt as if he was staring directly through him. Spooked but insanely curious, Mike pressed further.

“OK, what time do you mean?”

“I asked you if you ever looked up at the sky a few minutes ago. I asked because I wonder if you looked up once during your walk. Did you even  notice what a beautiful evening it is?.” He studied Mike’s face.

He then continued, “I asked you if you ever wondered what it was like to look down from a high tree. You had no answer. Why is that?”

“Because I don’t know who you are, where you’re from and how you know my damn name!” Mike Valentine was getting angry. He almost felt bad about raising his voice to the young, albeit creepy kid.

Unfazed, the boy continued. “I asked you about the trees because from the height of the tall tree you must look small. We all do. Minor. Insignificant. Yet all you are focusing on right now is how big your problems are.” He paused.

“See, the world is bigger than the size of the screen of your phone or laptop. If you looked around you would see that. But you need the phone and the computer to make money. To buy stuff, stuff that you will put in your house. The one you don’t want to go home to. That stuff will further take your attention away from a beautiful day. It’s just stuff, but it’s ruining you.”

Mike was beside himself. What the hell is this kid talking about? “How do you know this?!”

The boy sat down in the grass Indian style. “Did you ever sit just like this?  Playing with Matchbox cars in the dirt until your mother called you? You hated to go home, right? Just like now. But then it was because you were having fun. That’s not why you don’t want to go home now, is it Mike?” His tone was less inquisitive and slightly sarcastic.

The matter-of-fact look on this kids friggin’ face was killing Mike. He was looking right through him again. Yet he had no reply.

The boy continued. He was on his back now. “Did you ever lie on your back like this for hours looking at the sky? Wondering about the clouds, the stars at night. The possibility of a Heaven. About God. Do you think about God Mike?”

“Not as much as I should.” Mike was powerless to question the utterly bizarre nature of this conversation.

The boy was standing now. “You used to be a happy kid, right? Lots of friends. You knew where they were without Facebook. You would look for the yard with all the bikes in the yard. Your mom knew where you were because you called from a phone in that house, a phone mounted to a wall, right? A phone that you didn’t feel the need to have in your hand all the time. The streetlight was your curfew, or maybe you were close enough to home to hear your mother call you.” He paused and looked at his feet.

“It’s not too late, Mike”, He continued. “There’s still time to be that happy kid again. Look up, look around. Chase butterflies, smell the flowers. Find happiness like you used to. Remember the view of the bird, to him you are small. Look down on your problems as the bird looks down at you. Small, insignificant. It will work out.” With that the boy turned and began to walk away.

Mike Valentine, who had been at a complete loss for words for what seemed like forever, finally blurted out what he had wanted to ask all along.

“Kid, How do you know this? I mean me. I mean, this is impossible! How can you possibly know all of these things about my childhood? Is this mere speculation or a theory of yours? Do you think or do you know all of this!”

The boy, turning as he walked, said, “I know it. Think about where we’ve met before”. He then winked at Mike and continued walking. For the first time, Mike Valentine noticed that the boy had an old-fashioned Slingshot in his back pocket.

He used to have one just like it!

He looked down at the ground, he then gazed to the night sky. It really was a beautiful evening. I’m going to get into a brawl when I get home. I may be out of a job tomorrow. I’d have to get two promotions just to be a broke asshole. But I do have this beautiful evening.

The kid was right about that much.

He got in his car and turned the engine on. He bathed in the AC and observed that he felt a little better. Despite the Episode of the Twilight Zone he just starred in. The conversation played out over and over in his head. The kid was weird, but in a non-threatening way. And he looked vaguely familiar. Shaking his head in disbelief, or to make sure he was indeed awake and conscious, he put the car in gear.

It suddenly occurred to him that he had some old school pictures to go home and look at.

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed home.

The Lake Walk, cont’d…a Mike Valentine tale

this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. You can catch the first installment here.
He stood, put his hands on his aching sides, looked around and realized he was almost halfway around the lake. His legs were starting to cramp. Losing motivation, but aware that it’s the same distance back as it is to continue, he started to walk again. His mind was still racing but he furiously tried to control it.

He thought of his late father and his trademark line, Everything will work out, it always does. The mantra rang through his head.

I wish you were here to talk to right now, Dad. I could use some of that cheerful optimism of yours that I once scoffed at, he mused as he trudged forward. His Dad always seemed to have it together. Sure, he sometimes fought with his mother. But he loved her unconditionally. He had money problems, but got through it. He hated his job, but he never acted like I am right now. I’m a hot mess. I can’t stand my wife, I’m on the brink of foreclosure and my boss is a fucking psycho that I love one minute and hate the next. How would Dad handle all of this?

Mike Valentine was well-known to friends, family, and business associates for his resilience and cheerful demeanor. It was a source of pride to him that this applied to more than just his public, outside persona. He was also committed to maintaining a positive frame of mind even when alone and talking to himself, which today he was doing quite a bit of. What people didn’t realize is that it required a lot of his energy to maintain that reputation. There are limits to what any man can take, as he was fond of thinking. Sometimes, when the walls felt like they were closing in, he had to remind himself to be positive and at this moment he did just that. Snap out of it! he reprimanded himself, you’re not going to fix anything in this state of mind. With the equivalent of a snap of a finger, he let his day wash off of him and he just walked. To keep his mind empty and focused he walked while looking down at the ground and concentrated on playing “don’t step on a crack”, a game from his childhood, not stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. This amused him for a while and it wasn’t long before noticing that he was approaching the final stretch where his car sat waiting for him.

When Mike reached the clearing to the parking lot he saw that his car was the only one in the lot. He found it oddly comforting, it went great with his whole I want the world to leave me alone mood he was in. Then, as he got closer, he saw a lone figure in the parking lot very close to his car.  It was either a kid or a small adult. Great, I’m probably getting robbed or vandalized. He began to walk faster. This day is somehow getting worse. His legs protested but he pushed on.

He felt the phone in his back pocket vibrating. He continued focusing on walking as fast as he could. He was tempted not to even look to see who was calling. It was most likely his wife doing the nightly “where are you” call. God, he hated that call. Often, he contemplated answering and saying “as far away from you as possible!” and hanging up but he knew that wouldn’t end well. Then again, it could be one of his kids calling and he grabbed for the phone. Too late, he had missed the call, but it was indeed the wife. Here comes the text, he thought. 2 seconds later it came through.
Where are U?

Mike chuckled to himself despite his annoyance. He called that one. He didn’t respond. He had a walk to finish and possibly a kid to beat up.

As he got closer to his car he could see that it was a boy, maybe 8 years old standing near his car. He must have seen Mike approaching yet he made no move to retreat or even acknowledge his approach for that matter. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up, something seemed off about this kid.

“Hey kid”, he called out when he was less than 20 feet away, “can I help you?”
The boy was gazing intently at the sky. Without looking down or away he replied, “no Mike, I’m just fine thank you.”

to be continued…

The Lake walk…A Mike Valentine tale

Mike Valentine looked at the time display on his car radio. 7:15. Realizing that it will be dark soon, he did some quick math in his head and figured he had an hour before the mosquitoes starting eating him alive and his phone blows up from the wife wondering where he was. Despite the beautiful evening he was observing through his windshield, he didn’t want to get out of the car. He also didn’t want to go home. He wasn’t ready for that shit yet.

You took the time to change at the office, dickhead, go for the walk already, he scolded himself.

He opened the door and stepped into an onslaught of late afternoon humidity. Before closing the car door he made sure he had all of the essentials for his walk. Car key removed from ring and tied into shoelace. Check. Bottle of water. Check. He weighed the pros and cons of leaving his iPhone in the car or carry it for the entire walk. If he left it and she called he’d never hear the end of it. If she calls during the walk he may not answer it. He arrived at the conclusion that he was screwed either way so he tossed it on his seat and covered it with his jacket. He was about to lock the door when he opened it again and grabbed the phone. He cursed his addiction to the stupid thing as he slipped it into his back pocket.

Mike walked over to the big oak that currently shaded his 2008 Honda Accord with 200k on it from the late afternoon sun. He leaned against the mighty tree and attempted to stretch. His legs, stiff from sitting at a desk all day, were having none of it. Sadly, compared to his neck, the legs were nothing. Just an hour ago, in the course of a huge blowout with his boss, his head almost flew off of that very neck so the tension was of no surprise. Mike looked at his watch and chose to skip his usual stretching routine and just walk the lake.

“The lake” was a local treasure. Smack dab in the middle of an upper-middle class town full of old money and new construction, the lake was a favorite walking spot for people from surrounding towns. With its paved sidewalks, generous walking and bike lanes and magnificent view it was a bustling attraction for walkers, runners and bikers. Mike frequently walked the lake for all of those reasons, for a bit of after work exercise/stress relief, and of course for the added bonus of a plethora of young hotties and soccer moms coming and going in tight shorts and God’s greatest gift to mankind, the yoga pants. Tonight, Mike didn’t care about any of the scenery, he was in a foul mood and was walking because it was a healthier alternative to going to the local Chili’s and drinking cheap beer and eating tortilla chips all night.

As Mike walked the long parking lot and merged his tired body into the flow of traffic, as it were, he fought the initial tightness in his calves. Regretting not stretching more, he was comfortable that it would go away soon. As he reached the first long straight section, he realized that the tightness in his legs had subsided, his breathing was heavy and he welcomed the light breeze cooling his sweaty brow. He was getting into a rhythm. The lake is 3.5 miles around, it should take a total of 45 minutes and he felt on schedule.

As he settled into his rhythm he finally allowed the day’s events to freely bang around in his head. As soon as he did, the anger consumed him again. Being a self-aware man, Mike knew to keep his facial expressions in check lest he make oncoming walkers think he is a crazy fuck who is off of his meds. It was a difficult task, he was as mad as he could ever remember. He took several deep breaths and tried to sort his thoughts. Lets see, he recalled, I woke up to hear about how I’m not making enough money. When I told her to leave me alone, that she’s not helping, she called me a useless piece of shit. I told her to fuck off in front of the kids and felt like an ass all morning. I went to work mad, always a recipe for success, and my boss called me on my attitude. I ignored him and he let it go until 5 minutes before quitting time and then started the worse argument I’ve ever had with him or anyone else.

That’s not the worse part, a little voice in his head spoke up, you’re probably out of a job. You told him to go fuck himself on the way out the door, remember?

Mike Valentine remembered. He replayed the minutes of the argument in his head for what seemed like forever, trying to make sense, entertaining things he should have said and regretting some of the ones he did. After what seemed like an eternity of thinking and overthinking, he stopped walking, bent over and stared at the ground and physically shook his head as would a dog after coming in out of the rain.

“Enough” he said aloud to the inattentive ground. “I can’t live like this anymore. This is not the life I thought I would live. Something’s gotta give.”

The ground, as could be expected, had no response to his desperate plea.

To be continued…