[Note: This short story was written by Raspberry L. Granby (the protagonist of my novel Stolen Things) a dozen years or so after the events in that book. There are no spoilers – it’s a standalone story – but if you like the way she sees things, you might want to learn more about the events that helped shape her narrative voice. Click here for more info on that.]
by R. L. Granby
He had four names and didn’t like any of them. His first, Horatio, was a family name – his great great grandfather’s – the one who spent the first half of his life in prison, and the second half as an itinerant preacher. His second, Christian, was a hopeful spell cast upon him by his father, who believed his greatest role in life was playing deacon at First United Presbyterian Church. Notably, “father” didn’t even make it to the Top Five. His third, totally unnecessary name, Kennebunk, was slipped onto the birth certificate by his scheming mother, who claimed until her death that he had been conceived there, despite his father’s insistence they had stayed in Biddeford. His last name was MacDougal; it’s not like they had a choice there.
In high school, where he was known for wearing a slide rule like a badge of honor, everyone called him Ratio. He didn’t hate that. But it didn’t follow him to college. There, thanks to a glitch in the university’s computer, he was known only as Christian. Never Chris – always Christian. He probably would have been content with Ken, except that it was most likely based on a lie. He hated lying.
This was just one of the reasons he wasn’t looking forward to today’s meeting. Telling the truth to your MLM boss – that you made a mistake, that you aren’t cut out for selling – shouldn’t have to be the second hardest thing you’ve ever done (right behind actually trying to sell Clean Health Living supplements), but it was.
Because of Jack.
Jack recruited Horatio the day after he’d lost his job at Walgreens; the day he’d gone to Starbucks for the first time. “Downsizing,” they’d told him, but it was more likely because he wasn’t very good with strangers, and all customers are strangers the first time you see them. That made six jobs in two years after twenty in the same chair at Smith and Smyth Accounting.
Horatio hadn’t returned to Starbucks until now, exactly six weeks later. He was sitting at a too-small round table for two, sipping hot tea, watching the door and praying Jack wouldn’t show up.
Jack stepped through the door at exactly 1:30 PM wearing an expensive grey suit and bright blue tie, his long black hair gelled into obedience above a vaguely orange face.
“Mac! So good to see you. How’s the…” He paused. “…how’s the dog? Hooper, right?”
Mr. Hooper, thought Horatio.
“You named him after that guy in Jaws, right? The one who goes out on the boat with Brody and Quint? Who was the actor…he was in Mr. Holland’s Something-Or-Other…Robert…no Randy Dreyfuss!” A spray of spittle flew out of Jack’s mouth along with Randy Dreyfuss.
No, thought Horatio. He was named after the kind shopkeeper in Sesame Street, a childhood hero and trusted imaginary friend. “Yes. That guy.”
“Must be a real vicious beast, am I right?” said Jack, and Horatio wondered if he’d actually seen the movie or read the book.
Jack sat up straight, leaning forward, his elbows tilting the wobbly table in his favor, his eyes boring into Horatio’s.
“So talk to me, Mac…” His breath smelled of cheap coffee from somewhere else. Horatio sipped his tea, buying time, but he’d only ordered a Tall, so there wasn’t much time left to buy.
“I’ve been thinking…” Horatio began.
“Thinking’s overrated,” said Jack, bleached-white teeth flashing a big smile. “Action…now that’s where the money is.”
“Yes. Action,” repeated Horatio.
Horatio sat up taller, glanced around the room. A dark-haired woman at the table behind Jack was looking at them. Jack had only one volume setting for his voice – foghorn. Even his conspiratorial whispers (of which there were many) rattled glass. Horatio wanted to mouth a “sorry” to the woman who was probably writing a novel, but Jack was daring him to continue with one of his huge, black, caterpillar eyebrows. Horatio set his tea on the table, tipping the balance back his way for just a second before Jack leaned harder against it.
“I can see it in your eyes, Mac. You’re struggling. I know that look. And I know you. You’re having second thoughts, am I right?”
“Well, yes, I was…”
“Well let’s just skip right over those to your third thoughts, then,” interrupted Jack. “I mean, you could dwell there for a minute if you wanted – but dwelling isn’t selling, Mac.”
“My third thoughts?”
“That you can do this. That you are a goddamn golden god! Look, Mac, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but excuses are like shit: They stink and nobody likes it when someone hands them to you over coffee.” Jack laughed a loud, throaty laugh. Horatio glanced at the novelist again, managed the tiniest shrug of apology. She was smiling, shaking her head.
Her brown eyes looked familiar. Perhaps she wasn’t a novelist after all, but an actor. Lots of famous actors visited this Starbucks. Or so Jack had assured him six weeks ago.
“Listen, here’s the thing, Mac,” said Jack, his tone suddenly serious. “I don’t believe you are a loser. Really, I don’t. The question is, do you believe it? Because if you do, then there’s nothing I can do to help you. But if you don’t – and I know you don’t think that – then this is just a rest stop along your road to success. A very brief rest stop.”
Mac nodded. He was picturing a very specific rest stop in Iowa. One where he could sit and watch a dozen wind turbines turning like they were slowing time.
“It’s just that…” Horatio began.
“Whoa…” Jack’s head turned, then his body followed as he watched a woman walking past them. “Now that’s…” he turned back to Horatio. “Do you see that?”
Horatio didn’t move, fearing the slightest acknowledgment might make him a co-conspirator in Jack’s blatant objectification.
“Let me put it to you in simpler terms, my friend. You want something like that in your life, you gotta be successful. You gotta have money. They say money can’t buy you love? Well ‘they’re’ fucking idiots. Of course it can. You’ll never fuck anything like that unless you get serious about Clean Health Living, Mac. And that’s what you want, right? Something like…” He turned and pointed to the clearly annoyed woman. “That. Am I right?”
Horatio felt an overwhelming desire to punch Jack in the face. Instead, he looked down at his tea.
Jack didn’t seem to notice or care. He was already scooting his chair back, standing, offering his hand to Horatio. “I’m glad we had this talk, Mac. You just needed a little encouragement, that’s all. Now get out there and believe in yourself. Remember, your goal.”
“To become so successful as a distributor that I don’t have to work another day in my life. Because who wants to work, am I right?” He laughed and slapped Horatio on the shoulder. “Think of it this way – if you do a good job, you might be in my shoes someday. And look at ‘em, Mac,” He pointed down. “These are some damn fine shoes.”
Jack slapped Mac again, pushing him down further into his chair, then practically jogged over to the service counter to grab a napkin he didn’t need so he could get a better look at the blonde woman who was stirring milk into her coffee.
Mac sat there, stunned. When he finally found the nerve to glance up again, the dark-haired woman behind the laptop was looking at him, her head tilted in a question.
“He wouldn’t let you quit,” she said. It wasn’t a question after all.
“What? Oh, I wasn’t going to…” Horatio sighed. “Yeah. He’s a bit of a bulldozer.”
“You mean asshole, am-I-right?” she said, mimicking his tone and words perfectly.
Horatio laughed and didn’t even feel guilty about it. “Yes.”
“We’ve met, you know,” she said.
“You’ve met Jack?”
“No, I mean you and I. You’re an accountant, right?
“Used to be. Now I’m a…”
“…failed distributor for Clean Health Living.” She smiled an apologetic smile. “Sorry. That was harsh.”
“No, you’re absolutely right.” Horatio was trying to place the woman, but was failing at that too.
“You helped me once, at a business fair. With my taxes…”
Horatio flashed back to the one and only business fair he’d worked, six years earlier, and all he could remember was a feeling of utter panic at all the people crowding the too-small convention center and the nauseating smell of body odor mixed with coffee that permeated most of the people who stopped at his small table for free advice.
“It’s been a few years,” she said. “I was going through a divorce at the time, and you helped me sort out the best way to file. Made a huge difference, by the way. So, thanks…again.”
Horatio smiled, almost remembering a woman who resembled the one in front of him. He glanced, a little too obviously, at her left hand. She noticed and lifted it to show a diamond.
“Husband number two,” she said, “has proven to be a much more reliable partner to file jointly with.” She then shook her head. “That was a terrible sentence. Sorry. I become something of a blithering idiot in the real world when I’m trying to write something in the fictional one. I like to think that’s a good sign – that maybe my inability to speak is evidence that I’m using up all my wordy brilliance on the page. I know it’s a crock, but writers are good liars. Especially to themselves.”
“You’re a writer?” It was the stupidest question Horatio could have asked, but he couldn’t take it back.
“Well, depends on who you ask. I suspect your pal – Jack, right?”
“Jack would probably call me a hack, since I haven’t sold anything yet. But I prefer ‘writer on the way to something.’”
Horatio smiled. “I like that. Maybe I’m a salesman on the way to something…”
“Why does it have to be salesman?” she asked.
“I mean, do you love selling?”
“So maybe you should be doing something else?”
“What do you love?” she asked.
What did he love? Books. Movies. Daydreaming. Numbers. Tea. Sitting on park benches and staring at nothing until the world disappeared. “Nothing that can pay the bills, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I know what that’s like. Fiction is what I love most of all. Reading it. Writing it. Not much money there either.”
“Yet,” mumbled Horatio. He wasn’t quite sure why he said it.
“I just said ‘yet.’ That there wasn’t much money in it yet.” He blushed. “I just meant…well, what if you’re a really good writer and people just haven’t figured that out yet? When they do…well, anything’s possible, am I right?” He couldn’t help the smile that came to his face.
Now it was her turn to blush. “Jack…he called you Mac? Is that your real name?”
He shook his head, offered a mock salute and said, “Horatio Christian Kennebunk MacDougal, at your service ma’am. Have you heard about the miraculous healing power of Clean Health Living supplements?”
She laughed so hard at that her laptop nearly toppled to the floor. She caught it by the screen and folded it closed, reseating it on her lap. Horatio tried not to stare, but her laugh had captured him and wouldn’t let go. And that’s when he remembered her. The lines on her face had been tired and sad when she took her turn in the chair across from him at the business fair. But when she left, she had smiled this very same smile, repurposing those lines into something like hope.
“I remember you now.” He didn’t realize at first that he’d said that aloud.
She looked at him then in a way he had never been looked at before. Her eyes settled on his, and it was like she could see into his soul. The sensation was foreign, but not unwelcome. He felt…safe.
“Well, Horatio Christian Kennebunk MacDougal,” she began, “It feels good to be remembered.” Her smile faltered just a little, then settled back onto her gently freckled face.
“Yes, it does,” he said. Thank you.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she said. “Wait, that’s stupid. Aren’t all questions personal in a way? Sheesh. I’m really stumbling over myself today…”
“Bodes well for your writing,” said Horatio. But he didn’t think she was stumbling at all.
“Yes, it does,” she said.
“And yes, you may ask me whatever you want.” He would have told her anything.
“Did you really name your dog after that character in Jaws? The one played by ‘Randy’ Dreyfuss?” She rolled her eyes at “Randy.”
“No. It was after the shopkeeper in Sesame Street. Do you remember him?”
She tilted her head again, and her eyes appeared to mist up. “Mistah Hoopah…” she said, to herself more than to him. “He must be a lovely dog.”
Where there should have been an awkward silence, there was instead, strange comfort. Horatio saw the wind turbines spinning again, and imagined the two of them sitting on a bench, watching time slow down. It sped up again a moment or a thousand years later when Horatio absently knocked his cup to the floor. He reached down to pick it up, and when he set it on the table, the moment was gone.
“You should get back to writing that brilliant novel of yours,” he said, blushing for the second time.
She coughed up a guttural laugh. “I don’t know how brilliant it is.”
“That’s what all the brilliant authors say,” he said, surprised yet again by his words.
“Well, then. I shall get back to it.” She opened her laptop. “I’m Hannah, by the way. Hannah Louise Norman. Just three names for me.”
“Good to meet you…I mean see you again. And thanks.”
“Yeah. For…whatever this is.” He spread his arms wide, then fumbled with his cup, nearly dropping it again.
“This? This is life. This is connection. This is the best stuff there is,” she said, and then her eyes got wide again. “Ooh…that’s it! I need to make some notes before I lose them…” She pointed to her laptop.
“Write,” he said, pointing too.
“Thank you for the conversation.”
“Hey, that’s just what strangers in coffee shops do, am I right?”
“I don’t think we’re strangers anymore,” she said.
Horatio swallowed hard. She was exactly right. He got up quickly, fearing the tears would come too soon. “I really should be going…”
“I hope you find a job you love,” she said.
“Me too,” he said, the words tumbling into each other. He started to head to the door, then stopped and turned to look at her one more time. He didn’t have any words, he just wanted to capture the scene so he could replay it later.
She was still looking at him. “Is it okay if I write about you?” she asked.
“I need a hero for my story.”
All he could do was nod before hurrying out the door. As he was walking to his car, fighting back tears, he saw a familiar caterpillar-browed profile sitting in a beat-up Subaru, bellowing into his cell phone. Horatio wiped a stray tear, took a deep breath, and stepped toward it.