Chapter One (revised 31-Aug)

Sunday Morning

Two pocket mice appeared on the conference room table after chewing through the burlap bag containing bulgur wheat, then spilling the contents destined for overseas famine relief. Both rodents were in mid-chew when one, then the other, convulsed several times, eventually landing on their backs, legs kicking for a few seconds, then still.  

Several hours later, Harris Stewart shook himself awake at the sudden crash of his cell phone, which had vibrated off a pile of management books on his nightstand, knocking off a glass that fell and broke, the phone now lying on broken glass.

The smart phone buzzed again, the glass tinkling. Leaning over to get the phone, he nearly teetered over. Looking at the tiny screen, blurred by the effects of the late-night fundraising party less than 12 hours ago, he thought he was seeing double; there wasn’t just one missed text, but a whole screen, and some to spare.

“Ok, who’s so important that I can’t get the decency of a couple hours to myself?” He said to himself as he tapped on the first message:

Millions could suffer starvation without your help. Give now to the Human Mission. Dial 876543 to give any amount

Over and over. He thought he counted at least 16 messages.

Harris had one more week of community service at the Human Mission. It was his stupid comment in court that resulted in the unusual sentence of community service  during an especially trying week with Justine, his soon to be ex-wife, which likely cost him his job at Robertson’s Manufacturing where he was VP of Operations.

Clearly something had gone amiss with the donor messaging service; how many others had been harassed with messages all night?

He discovered he was wearing one shoe, but no pants. He stopped to run his hand over the other side of the bed—did I come home alone or with someone from the party? But the other side of the bed was still flat and relatively untouched. He kicked off the shoe and put on some sweats hanging on a nearby chair.

He walked into the kitchen and started some coffee. He was as picky about his Hawaiian coffee as he was with the Oregon wine, the international spices, the Italian canned tomatoes, the Italian olive oil, the flavored salts, the Italian pasta, the ground sirloin, and on and on. No point in investing in the time to make a good meal using piss-poor ingredients he had told guests many times at the dinner parties he and his wife put together. Friends often asked when they might be invited over for another one of Harris’ extravagant dinner productions.

With the coffee freshly ground and in the coffee maker, he knew he had eight minutes before it brewed to toast a bagel. While he waited, he pulled out a spray bottle of surface cleaner, sprayed down and wiped the countertops, the front of the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the microwave and carefully the coffee maker carafe while the pot was still brewing. He took out a knife, plate and matching mug and placed them in a line on the counter. Without a stool, he could see dust on top of the refrigerator, which he attacked with the spray cleaner as well. 

His 41-year-old, six foot frame could still reach the lofty spots, but his soft middle pushed up against the fridge, making the reach a bit harder than in the past. His once cropped but stylish hairstyle that made his mostly gray hair look elegant was now a somewhat shaggy mop with ducktails in back due to his propensity for curly hair. He looked more hippie-like than business executive, but then lately he felt a lot less executive anyway. He needed a haircut for sure, but he had pissed off his stylist who he had known for 30 years. He pissed everyone off that week.

The smell and ding-ding sound from the toaster oven caught his attention. As he evenly spread the cream cheese, it reminded him of one of the nibbles last night, a strawberry with feta cheese in the middle (well, it looked like cream cheese) that came around on a tray held by a catering company server. It reminded him of his mother’s hotel job.

Last night had been the big fundraising event for Human Mission, which, as the texts repeated, was collecting donations for a famine relief overseas. The Mission was where he was serving his 150 hours of community service as well. The judge had given him few choices; this was the least menial and also indoors.

The director of the Mission realized Harris wasn’t a typical volunteer. Harris made it clear he wasn’t volunteering either. Harris’ past roles in corporations plus his education would be useful to the Mission’s fundraising event. Harris had been assigned at the beginning with making phone calls to previous high income donors, explaining the conditions overseas and making the ask or at least inviting him or her to the event.

Less than 12 hours later he was sitting by himself with a bagel in the townhouse he and his soon-to-be ex-wife had lived in together for almost ten years. The rooms were filled with “stuff” and the accumulated memories of those years. When she left several months ago, she told him she didn’t want any baggage from their relationship clouding her “new” life, including the stuff that they had bought together to start their life 12 years ago. The townhouse itself had become a symbol of the flaying of their relationship. For Harris it meant stability, to Justine it was an anchor holding her back.

It was a Friday night that she told him she was moving out, that she signed a lease for a condo downtown where she said she would enjoy the sounds of the city and the excitement of the nightlife. He still didn’t understand: they went out at least once a month to dinner, sometimes to a new play, or to a club to hear some live music. 

This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Their relationship had been filled with terse words about a diverging lifestyle. She had always said that law school was her ticket out of the dreary life with her godparents after her parents’ death in a car crash when she was a young girl. 

She took a few things, but she explained the condo into which she was moving was fully furnished. She took some art, her clothes and a few mementos, but she left everything else, severing any connection with the life she had spent with him. She hadn’t had much to begin with when Harris met her.

“You can’t begin to understand what it was like when Ellen tried to make dinner, or take me shopping for school clothes, or, or buy a birthday gift,” yelled Justine one evening. “It was always cheap. They could afford going to Macy’s, but not for me. It was always some bargain store with fashion leftovers from years ago. Do you know what it’s like to go to school wearing that shit?” 

“I can’t remember all the ways she used canned tomato soup. Soup and greasy meatballs over spaghetti was about the worst, but somehow it got shoveled onto my plate every other week. Ever heard of shit on a shingle? Pretty sure she invented it: a milky attempt at Hollandaise with a hard boiled egg and thin lunchmeat over balloon bread. What a bunch of crap!”   

“I HATED ALL THAT! I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go away to college. Hell, dorm food was a real treat! I’ve worked hard and deserve better, and I’M GOING TO GET IT!”

On this occasion, he had asked if she could get the cucumber for the salad at the 24-hour superstore instead of the deli-store she liked. It was as if a volcano had erupted. Harris had heard all of this since they first met. He thought she understood that a childless couple instantly becoming parents to a grief stricken nine-year-old would not go well at first, or in Justine’s case ever. It would be the same as if they  suddenly were charged with taking care of his sister’s fifteen-year-old. What a dumpster fire that would be. 

It wasn’t that Harris was a slouch or didn’t have his only familial baggage. He had moved up the ladder in a family-owned company, becoming more and more valuable in marketing, sales and operations. The company’s founder and CEO had made him vice president of operations, rewarding him handsomely with a six-figure salary and other perks. Harris believed there was an order to things, steps, a path. It was just more efficient and guaranteed uniform results.

Harris, and to some degree his older sister, had been raised by his mother Judy after his dad left her for a younger model at his law firm. Judy had been a sous chef for a downtown hotel restaurant. The pay was OK, the tips helped, but there was an immediate lowering of their economic standard, even after the meager child support, which only arrived about every other month only after Judy called over and over to demand the payment. She started bringing home leftover food when she could to help make ends meet; at least they ate well on those nights. 

Angel, his older sister by five years, got out at 19, marrying an army lieutenant in the 101st Airborne. They had been on the move ever since due to his changing duties. She was rewarded with the status that came with his higher rank, but never spent more than a few years at any one base. The nomadic but predictable life seemed to suit her.

But the downward slope from happiness, success and love in Harris’ own life had been a landslide of events. His dad left, his mom died nearly five years ago, Justine moved out several months ago. Then, there was the disorderly conduct citation following a knock-down-drag-out argument, which led to a court appearance. His attitude before the judge was anything but conciliatory. Harris’ appearance coincided with a bad day for the judge, who sentenced Harris to the unusual service time for a misdemeanor. 

When he went to talk to the CEO about taking the leave, word had already leaked to the company by way of a spouse who worked at the courthouse. The CEO suggested Harris think long and hard while on leave about what he wanted for his future. Harris was sure it was just a civil way for Mack to tell Harris to find another job.

As he sat down to chew on his bagel, he reached into the pocket of the sweats, but couldn’t find his phone. He paused, still in a bit of a stupor, to think where he had left it. After a very long pause, he thought it was still in the bedroom, albeit rescued from the broken glass he still needed to sweep and vacuum up. Taking a handful of cleaning implements with him, he found the phone on the nightstand. He reached down with a hand broom and dustpan to sweep up the glass. He vacuumed over the area he had just swept, then sprayed a floor cleaner on an area twice as large and mopped the floor with an old towel he used for his weekly cleaning.

He grimaced as he stood up, putting his hand on the side of the bed to steady himself after becoming slightly light headed. With the blood back behind his eyes, he shuffled back to the kitchen, dumped the glass and returned the vacuum, broom and dustpan combo and cleaning supplies to the kitchen closet.

He grabbed a mug and the coffee pot and headed to the kitchen counter where his remaining half bagel was waiting. Now the phone was in the familiar left pocket. No more Mission alerts waited for him, instead there were a couple of messages from the sports leagues he followed. One was for the men’s soccer team that he followed. There would be a pre-game interview at 11:00 AM with the new coach. There was another message about an upcoming sports draft, two for various news items that he scanned, and one with a summary of the above coach interview. That stopped him. “I already missed it?” He said out loud. He looked at the time on the phone to see it was already 11:45. “What’s going on,” he mumbled before looking up at the oven clock, which now read 11:46. 

Then it dawned on him. His 11:00 appointment.

“OHHHHH SHIT! I need to check in for court!” He was already out of his chair. “I can’t miss that, I can’t miss that!” He ran down the hall to find a presentable polo shirt, sat to pull on some briefs, chinos, socks and his loafers, pocketed his keys, phone and wallet and ran down the hallway, crossed himself in front of the crucifix above the door, and ran out the door, slamming it behind him.


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About Dare PackageA down-and-out corporate executive doing court-ordered community service investigates the reasons behind a toxic famine relief shipment. He looks for relief from the poisons in his own life, including the undoing of his career and marriage, but his estranged wife becomes the only person he can trust! 

© Scott Wolff. No part of this may be copied or reproduced.