by Jack King
On a cold November morning, he made his first delivery. He stuck to personal shopping on the northeastern end of the county where forest-lined hills broke dense neighborhoods of houses on postage-stamp lots. The Hockstedtters’ place sat on a cul-de-sac. Lee donned his mask, pinched the clip around his nose, and brought up the groceries. The plastic bags crinkled in the wind against a bruised gray sky; the sound reminded him of wispy rain on a tin roof. He lined the porch with the bags in the way Mrs. Hockstedtter asked him in the shopping app chat, cold items first. He rang the bell, stepped back, and waited for someone to answer.
Every customer had instructions as different as their grocery orders. The Hockstedtters wanted as little interaction as possible. She opened the door, peered out so he only saw the top half of her head, and gave a wave. This was his cue that he could leave, which he did.
As he backed out of the driveway, he spotted the family, masks on, quickly snatching the bags as if the air outside were toxic.
He drove back to the Super Kroeger’s, his phone dinging with his tip—fifty dollars. Generous, considering most offer no tip at all.
This was his life now. A menagerie of shadowy figures hidden behind half-closed doors, faces half covered in masks, glances of frightened eyes and bleary gazes. Is he safe? Does he carry it? This, punctuated by brightly lit and sometimes half-stocked grocery stores, shuffling shoppers, typically the elderly from Autumn’s Grace retirement village slow-waddling between aisles deciding on the best deals their coupons can provide, sometimes the fervent and argumentative mask-less entitled, but mostly the worn and tired who, like he, have spent the better part of a year in quiet isolation waiting for this to all be over.
Life before COVID was a dream.
Lee would never know how much the Hockstedtters needed him. He didn’t know about their daughter, who was battling leukemia, or the mother, who only just survived breast cancer. They never gave first names, and his interactions were all through the grocery app.
They seemed health conscious. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, mostly chicken, a slab of frozen wild salmon. Nothing sugary, not even cereal.
His next order couldn’t be more different. Powdered doughnuts, Twinkies, sodas, five different bags of chips, two pounds of bacon, lunch meat, breakfast cereal, all for an M. Dermott. Instructions read: if they got cheesecake, get tow. No froz.
Lee was jobless but not yet homeless. COVID had been a boon to him, the silver lining as it allowed him to work. He found unemployment early in the pandemic; his firm shifted software development overseas. The same week, he moved out of the two-story brick front on Culpeper Lane that he’d shared with Shelly for the last eight years. He’d been sleeping in the grave of a marriage, stuck in a rut of unspoken insults and annoyed glances, until one day she’d had enough. Her lover now slept beside her, in a bed he bought, in a house whose mortgage he still paid. He was too exhausted with everything to be angry about it, and he owned a bit of how it turned out since he spent the last few years in a vodka haze where every day seemed to bleed into the next.
Maybe he did waste his pre-COVID life. That kind of realization threatened to pull him back inside a bottle. He’d call his sponsor later.
Shopping finished, he pulled up to the address of M. Dermott. A fading vinyl-clad house on a narrow street. A rusting red tricycle sat beside a pile of plastic blocks on the graying lawn in a pattern that suggested an intentional crash. The driveway was marked with the colorful chalk petroglyphs. Stick figure people walked stick figure dogs. Everyone had chalk masks.
He donned his mask and began unpacking the groceries as the garage opened. A stocky man in dark blue denim and a button-down untucked shirt watched the door rise, his arms crossed. His mask was printed with a leering, angry scowl of the Hulk. “Saw you got everything but the chocolate milk,” the man said.
“Yup.” Lee set the bags down at the rim of a garage piled with the detritus of a busy household. There were bikes, boxes, old baskets, a yard sale of random treasures packed not so neatly into place.
M. Dermott walked the only clear path. He stopped. “What did you say your name was?”
Lee only used his initials on the app. He liked staying at least partially anonymous. He grabbed the remaining bags, plastic digging into his fingers. “It’s Lee.”
“Ah shit,” the man said. The door to the house opened and a young girl stepped out. “Get back inside, honey. Now!” The man was half shouting. The girl looked startled, but she obeyed.
The man seemed to recognize him, but his face was unfamiliar to Lee. “Do I know you?”
“Just put that down and get the fuck out.” The man stepped back as if he were ready to run.
Lee set the bags down. “I’m sorry, if I offended you or…”
“Just don’t,” the man said. “You ruined my fucking life, you asshole. Just…”
Lee started backing up, held his hands up, palms out. “I don’t know what I did but…”
The man stepped forward. “Get the fuck out!” His face was red with rage.
Lee didn’t know why he hesitated. “I’m sorry.” He had no idea what he’d done.
“Fucking go, goddamn you!” The man plucked a box and threw it.
Lee felt something thud into his back, an explosion of powdered sugar and doughnut shrapnel.
Backing away, Lee repeated, “I’m sorry,” and ran to his car. His heart raced as he sped out of the neighborhood. He didn’t recognize the man or the name, hadn’t been in that part of town since he was a kid. The encounter left him so shaken, he had to pull off to the side of the road and calm himself.
His phone dinged. No tip, not that he expected one after that. The man left an angry review with enough expletives that it would get flagged.
Lee had two more orders before the day was done. He tried to focus but found it harder as the afternoon wore into evening.
As the sun set, a light rain began coating the world in a reflective gloss. Traffic on the roads wasn’t bad, but the lack of police presence had brought out the idiots who thought they could drive dangerously. A few cars chased each other, zipped through traffic. He imagined one of them clipping his bumper, imagined careening toward the concrete barrier. He unbuckled his seat belt, daring the world to strike.
When it didn’t, he reached his apartment complex unscathed. Second floor (just underneath the heavy-footed woman who liked to have sex and then vacuum at 2 a.m. most weekends). He fell into the couch in a dark room, too tired to switch the lights on. He wanted a stiff drink, the taste of something sharp.
He plucked his phone out and dialed his sponsor. Roy answered with a groggy “Yellow?”
“Hey,” Lee said.
“Hey, man, how you doing?”
“Hard day,” he said.
“I hear that,” Roy answered. “Glad you called though. You feeling the urge?”
“It gets easier,” Roy said, which was no consolation. “You ever call that shrink?”
“No,” Lee said, rubbing his temples.
“Asking for help is hard as hell, but depression is only gonna make it worse.”
A silence lingered. Lee heard a TV in the background.
“You remember Mr. Cotter?” Roy asked.
Lee knew what Roy was getting at. The same old conversation tactic, something to keep him on the phone and mind off the drink by lingering on the parts of their shared past. They went to the same high school, but he didn’t know Roy until AA. Like Lee, Roy drank his way through a marriage, only he’d had two kids and had been the kind of violent drunk the world could do without. Lee had trouble reconciling the stories Roy told with the gentle and patient man he knew him as.
“I do,” Lee said. “Shop teacher. I made a birdhouse that probably broke every building code ever written.”
Roy laughed forcefully. “Yep, that’s him. You know, he came to a few meetings years back. Right when I was starting. Recognized me, but we never spoke. You never know what somebody’s carrying. Guys don’t make room for that. We’re supposed to be John Wayne, grin and bear it. But that’s bullshit.”
Lee pinched the bridge of his nose, felt the indentations of the mask he’d worn most of the day.
“I know I’m preaching, but I think you aren’t hearing it, friend. I’m gonna be brutally honest.”
Lee hated that phrase. People said it when they were more interested in being brutal than honest. He trusted Roy and found it hard to just tune him out.
“You’re hurting. Can hear it in your voice.”
“Do you know an M. Dermott?” Lee asked to change the subject.
“No, not really. Got a first name?”
“No. I couldn’t recognize him from anything. Dropped off an order this afternoon. He recognized me, but I couldn’t place him. He was,” Lee hesitated, “angry.”
“You think he could’ve been from school?”
“Maybe,” Lee thought. He barely graduated, barely showed up to class.
His parents divorced when he was nine. His dad ran off with his secretary was the story as his mother told it. It was just the two of them for years, his mother working overtime to keep them fed. When he was seventeen, he learned the other woman was his aunt, his mother’s sister. It was a tragic fact with sharp edges. No wonder his mother created a fiction to shield herself from the wounds.
“Oh shit, you mean Pants!” Roy said. “I remember him.” Half laughter in his voice.
The memory came rushing back, slamming into Lee with the weighty guilt of years. He was a depressed senior, exhausted because his days were school, and afternoons were jobs to help pay for the dingy apartment he lived in with his mother. A kid bumped him in the lunch line, and when Lee turned around, he noticed the kid was much smaller than he was. Without even thinking, he reacted. He yanked the kid’s pants down, but the kid wasn’t wearing any underwear. The cafeteria erupted in laughter as the boy fled, tripping over his pants twice as he tried to pull them up.
“Damn.” Lee’s grandmother always told him the world had enough hate in it; there was no need to spill his own. He regretted doing what he did, but he couldn’t take it back. He graduated and forgot about it until now.
“Look,” Roy said, “the past casts a long shadow for everybody. You can’t change what happened, you can only change who you are and make amends where you can.”
“Pretty sure Mr. Dermott doesn’t want to have a friendly chat.”
“Don’t jump ahead,” Roy said with his friendliest laugh. “That’s step nine, and you’re still on five. One day at a time, brother.”
“Right,” Lee said.
“About that therapist…”
Lee cut him off. “I’ll call. Promise.”
“You want to meet? Go walk somewhere?”
He hesitated. “No. It’s raining. I’ll be okay. Thanks for taking the time.”
“It’s no problem. Day or night, I’m here.”
They hung up. Lee sat on the couch in the dark for the better part of an hour. He thought about calling his mother. He hadn’t spoken to her in a few months. She didn’t even know he and Shelly weren’t a thing anymore.
After he moved out of their apartment, Lee sent his mother money. It’d been a source of argument with Shelly since his mother hadn’t needed support for years. She remarried, but still asked from time to time. She’d call it a loan, but she’d never pay it back.
She married a wealthy man when he left for college. They divorced six years later, and she’d gotten a healthy settlement. Then she took early retirement from her accounting firm. Lee thought she’d earned it. Being a single mother took a toll on her, he told himself. She moved to Florida to be near her sister. She’d come back once a summer to visit their old neighbor, just over an hour away. She would never make time to see him. She stayed for three weeks, but whenever he’d ask, she was too busy to come by. He saw her, what, three years ago now? He couldn’t remember.
Lee got up, switched the light on, and went to the second bedroom, which had been piled full of boxes. He hastily packed what he could of his life when he moved out, then dumped it here and never looked at it. It took him four hours to find his old yearbook. Perryville High, class of 2000. Mike Dermott’s picture was among the freshman class. Younger, no beard, but it was the same person. Lee flipped through, found a photo from the fall dance. An image of girls leering at Mike, the picture labeled “Pants can’t find a date.”
The crushing weight of guilt stole his breath. He fell to the floor, yearbook folded over on itself. He tried to stand, but was too dizzy. He never meant to hurt anyone, never meant to be a bully. He had no idea something so stupid had caused someone else so much pain, undeserved pain at that. No wonder Mike hated him.
He had no problem finding his stash. Four bottles of vodka, one half full. He pulled it out of the box and swallowed two gulps.
You start telling your story and you think you’re the hero until you find out otherwise. He felt like the world was all upside down, black was white, good was bad. Everybody was terrified of catching COVID, and instead of fighting it, they made mask-wearing a personal statement, made fighting disease a political issue. The rich held office, the poor were branded as failures. The environment was collapsing. There wasn’t much hope left in the world. And he’d been spilling his hate into it.
He looked at the remaining bottles and wondered how much he could drink before sunrise.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story