“Get your damn cold feet off me, will you?” Rosie mumbled, yanking the wool blanket toward her side of the bed.
Love of my life, Herbert Beasley thought. He shivered as a waft of cold air snuck its way between the crispy sheets. Might as well get up now. He lumbered to the bathroom and winced as the fluorescent light overhead pierced his pupils. Herbert positioned his bare feet over the toilet, held himself for a time, was mildly disappointed at the trickle of urine. One of these days I gotta get that looked at. I just can’t stand some smart-mouth doctor sticking his finger up my ass. Hell, he didn’t even know if his dick worked anymore, what with Rosie on the permanent rag. Poppa always said: if the washing machine’s broke, a good man’ll wash by hand. But Herbert just felt like going around with dirty clothes.
At the bathroom sink, he peered into the sallow face staring back at his. The saggy jowls, the opaque eyeballs laced with thready, crimson roads. Man, I hope my kid never looks like this! He inhaled deeply for eight seconds – just like he’d read about in Dr. Hale’s get-well book he’d gotten last Christmas from his older brother, Roger. After counting to four in his head, he exhaled with a whoosh for seven seconds. He did this three times, but still felt … nothing. A bunch of crap … just as I figured.
After brushing his teeth, he donned the compulsory short-sleeved white shirt and navy dress pants. He hated the way his belly pooched over, creating a flabby shelf. Which way did those wasskly balls go? Herbert snorted through his nostrils. Life is a cartoon, and I’m Elmer Fudd.
* * *
Herbert tipped the non-dairy creamer container, but found it empty. “Dammit. Why can’t these idiots replace stuff when it’s gone?” He reached under the cupboard below the dual-pot coffee maker and grabbed a new Cremora container. He punctured the plastic cutout and sprinkled some artificial snow into his cup. Herbert headed back to his cubicle.
“Hey, Herb, you bringing Rosemary to the company picnic on Saturday?” Bob pronounced his name Erb, like so many other people who seemed to think this was cute.
“No, Bob-Bushka (ha! take that, asshat!), Rosie never comes.” How true is that?!
Herbert headed for his desk, hoping for no further confrontations. He parked his coffee on the coaster and straightened the various piles of paper on the smooth veneer. As a copy editor, Herbert’s forte included thrillers and medical drama. Long ago, he had dreams of becoming a doctor – but his family couldn’t afford it. Plus, he was a C student. He knew it. So after graduating college with a degree in liberal arts, he had worked his way up from intern to editorial assistant [read: Gopher bigoramous] to junior copy editor in a mere seventeen years. Oh, boy. You go, Erb.
Eight minutes later he was satisfied that everything was orderly. He extracted the first manuscript from his Inbox, grabbed a new red ballpoint from his desk drawer, and poised the tip over the white paper, ready to attack.
In Chapter One, he read:
Lenny Dooman clutched the steering wheel with bloodless knuckles. Spittle wet the chapped creases of his mouth. Ahead of his speeding car, a mangy shit-brown mongrel sauntered across the street – Lenny accelerated and swerved the big Pontiac. The dented front bumper grazed the left flank of the dog and Lenny cackled at the rear view mirror as the furball limped to the gutter.
What kind of asshole hits a dog? A staccato knock on the tacky, piss-yellow fabric partition induced an involuntary gasp from Herbert – he mocked a cough to conceal the girlish noise. The department’s secretary, Isabelle, hung her wrinkled face around the three-quarter wall looking like a sideways version of the ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawings he used to doodle as a kid. Herbert mused that Reed & Moore Publishing’s so-called ‘open-door policy’ meant that since peons had no doors, they were always open.
“Mr. Grossman wants to see you at one o’clock, in his office,” she said, a slight smile drawing up her mouth, which to him resembled a labia.
“What for?” he said.
“How should I know? He just told me to make sure you were there.” With that, she snaked her head from the partition and left.
Herbert gnawed his ragged hangnails in order, from his left thumb to his left pinkie, followed by an assault his right hand. What could he want? I’ve being doing my job. It was three minutes to twelve, so he decided to take his lunch while he waited. He tugged open the bottom drawer, extracting a greasy brown paper bag. His belly roiled as he examined the contents: a coagulating baloney and mustard on Wonder Bread, accompanied by a perfectly square sliver of Kraft American “Cheese,” a bag of Cheetos (baked, not fried), and an anemic red apple. No wonder I can’t take a decent dump! As he had every other day for the past seventeen years, he wolfed down the sandwich, taking a moment to stare at the white, orange, and pink horseshoe-shaped dental pattern. He chomped the Cheetos and threw away the apple. And every day, it made him feel like he had never left the depressing life of a fifth-grader. Except now there were piles of bills, a crappy, snappy wife, and nothing to fucking live for.
At five minutes to one, Herbert skulked over to the elevator – and left his stomach on ground level as he ascended to Mr. Grossman’s 14th-floor suite. Once there, he plunked down into one of the maroon plush chairs that inhabited this floor.
He waited until 1:23 p.m., periodically taking a Dr. Hale breath, just hoping he had missed something and that it would really work to relax him. He swallowed tightly as Miss Emerson told him he could go in now. Herbert trod across the thick, elegant chocolate carpet and felt like he was traipsing across a Mississippi mud swamp. And the alligator was soon fixin’ to make his leg a bloody, festering stump. Yessirree.
He walked through the grand maple door past Miss Emerson’s game show wave. “Sit down, Mr. Beasley,” ordered Mr. Grossman. Herbert perched at the chair’s edge.
“Bet you’re wondering why I’ve called you up here.”
“Well, as you’ve probably noticed – due to an economic downfall – we’ve had to let some of your colleagues go.”
Herbert fought biting his nail; the baloney threatened an untimely exit.
“This has caused a shift in the delegatory imperative, which leaves you, Mr. Beasley, with enhanced productional opportunities.”
“Yes, uh…” glancing down at his notes, “Herbie. It does.” We at Reed & Moore would like to take advantage of your talents, and expand your responsibilities to include westerns, pulp fiction, children’s stories, gardening, sports, and the romantics.”
“Wow, I’m, er, flattered.”
“Of course, due to tight budgetary constraints, we can’t augment your remunerations. You will, however, receive a new title: Senior Copy Editor. And, as a bonus, we’re giving you the rest of the day off. With pay.”
“Well. Thank you.” Prick.
Herbert left the meticulously appointed office of Mr. Grossman. More work . . . like there isn’t enough to do now. Who does that idiot think I am, Evelyn Wood? He descended the elevator down to his six-foot by five-foot cubicle, plopped down in his chair, and gathered his belongings to leave for the day.
The untitled manuscript he had been reading earlier caught his eye. Herbert flipped to page two and read:
Lenny was having a bad day . . . a bad life, for that matter. His brother, Phil, just got a promotion. What does Lenny get? Dumped on by a boss suffering from the Peter Principle.
Herbert’s phone rang twice, but he didn’t pick it up. Probably my boss, ‘Peter,’ he thought, looking to add on another genre, say, maybe . . . feminine hygiene. On a whim, he shoved the manuscript into his briefcase; maybe he’d sit somewhere and read. He didn’t want to go home – he wasn’t up to Rosie being there, making a big deal out of this thing, asking him why he didn’t stand up for more money. Picking up his possessions, he left the building.
Plodding to his ancient ’65 Seaside Aqua Rambler, Herbert reached his car and clambered in. In a burst of spontaneity, he decided to go to the Freeman City Zoo in town and stroll around a while. Clear his mind.
* * *
The Zoo swarmed with human animals. Herbert ambled up and down the hills. The more he saw, the lower he felt; he pitied the poor captive creatures – bars and walls and moats, oh, my.
The lion paced back and forth and back, growling at each terminus; the polar bear performed repetitive underwater somersaults, amusing the audience. Herbert knew, however, that this was either a horny bear, or aberrant behavior exacerbated by captivity. He finally settled himself on a bench overlooking the pygmy chimps; they seemed relatively happy to him.
Herbert dropped his chin to his chest – it was just too heavy to hold upright with all of the crap in his head. At least these apes don’t have to go to some stupid company picnic . . . with idiotic people they don’t even like during the week . . . pretending they’re happy to have more work at the same pay. What the hell’s the point?
He decided to read some more of the manuscript he had brought into the zoo with him. Four minutes into Chapter Two, he read:
Ribs crackled like fire as Lenny thrust the glimmering, curved blade deep into her chest, yanked it out, thrust it in, yanked it out – fascinated by the way the blood gurgled up from her heart like cherry pie filling seeping from its crust, piping hot from the oven.
A group of Puerto Rican kids clambered up to the enclosure, pounding on the glass. A young chimp flung her long hairy arm, with its gnarled knuckles, at the faces pressed against the window. The kids screamed. Herbert seethed after one boy, in his excitement, elbowed him in the groin without so much as a ‘lo siento mucho.’ Too bad Lenny didn’t hit this kid instead of the dog.
Herbert left the enclosure and wandered over to the elephants. He sat on a wooden bench and picked up the story again:
“Goodbye, my sweet,” he muttered to the corpse. Picking up the snub-nosed Smith & Wesson, Lenny raised the barrel under his chin. He knew that if he aimed at the temple, he might wind up a vegetable. He drew back the trigger with his index finger. Just enough pressure … there you go … almost …
Herbert’s mind fluxed in the warm November sun; he wondered whether the infamous Lenny committed his acts inside or outside. Better remember to mark “set scene” on the manuscript Monday. He fancied Lenny in his backyard on a day such as this, angled sunrays casting arced glints on the lawn with each knife thrust. The ice cold steel of the front sight on the end of the barrel penetrating Lenny’s double chin. Yeah, outside’d be better – less to clean up that way. Just hose away the syrupy blood and mottled-pink brain bits. Herbert hated messes of any kind. A better way would be to make no mess at all – like taking the perpetual plunge.
Hebert lifted his eyes to the text again:
Darkness draped Lenny’s eyes like a cascading theater curtain – heavy, slow. It was quiet, peaceful. A peace that he hadn’t felt since he was a kid. As the life seeped from him, his mouth curved into a smile – sweet, content.
Herbert’s chest ached. Not for Lenny, but for that kind of peace. He tugged on his overcoat. On his way out of the zoo he watched the people. The couple who stared off in different directions, heedless of each other; the mother who viciously squeezed her crying son’s chin; the punk who threw his crumpled burger wrapper on the ground rather than hold onto it for ten more feet. A raven gronked atop the revolving barred doors at the exit. Herbert knew then what he had to do.
* * *
Poe was right. Nevermore. Herbert eased his car over to the right and parked at center span of the Founder Bridge. He vigilantly set the emergency brake and rolled up the window. He locked the door, walked behind his vehicle, and leaned over the weather-beaten guardrail. A gust of wind whipped at Herbert’s back as he marveled at the 200-foot chasm between himself and the choppy slate-hued water.
He glanced lengthwise down the bridge and noticed a flat cyan rectangle with iridescent-white letters bolted to the lamppost:
We Can Help!
Probably just a bureaucratic disclaimer to keep the city out of litigation. Herbert turned back to the choppy water. Rapidly advancing from the east rise of the bridge, he heard a stereo blasting, “I can’t get no . . . SAT-is-FAC-tion … ” A cherry-red ’69 Firebird caught up with the song. A grimy-haired kid in his twenties leaned his head out of the passenger window as the car cruised by. He yelled, “Jump, Pops!”
Herbert felt the heat rising from his neck to his ears. Just another fucking animal, he thought. I better not catch my son pulling that crap. He took another look at the suicide hotline sign – memorized the number – and got back into his car.
Herbert steered his Rambler down the bridge to look for a pay phone. He stopped the car when he found one at a little park near the water’s edge. He searched his pockets for a quarter, but only found a dime and two pennies. Hunting through the ashtray and between the seats, he finally found a nickel. Still a dime short, Herbert approached a young couple splayed out on a plaid blanket.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “Could I trouble you for a dime? I have a very important call to make.”
“Sorry, man, no can do.”
Herbert trudged over to a blonde woman playing ball with her child and made the same request. She made no verbal response, but grabbed her daughter and hurried off.
One last try, he thought, walking up to a city worker sitting in his pumpkin-colored truck.
“Nope. And you better move your car, you’re blocking a fire hydrant,” said the man.
Herbert returned to his vehicle, cranked the engine, and drove back up the bridge. This time he didn’t roll up his window, set the brake, or lock his car. Executing a reverse pike he learned in high school, Herbert Beasley sailed off the Founder Bridge, scoring a perfect 10 to his death.