RUM BABY

This is how we become who we are: your mother and father meet and find each other attractive in their own unique way, and they do not claw each other’s eyes out yet, but play cards with strangers, take Jell-O shots and rum on the rocks. Sometimes she likes it with cola, but he always takes it plain (a trait you will inherit). They people-watch while eating and drinking, laughing at nothing that they will remember in a few years, or care to. She complains that the tomato on her chicken salad is mushy and too ripe. She says, “Let’s do a shot of rum. No Jell-0 but a real shot, and your future father says, standing up before going to the men’s room: “Hell yeah!”

They are twenty-seven.

They are college graduates. Statistically—means financial security, but statistics are always skewed.

It might lead to a better living environment for you so that you can consume the innerworkings of societal norms, like if the knife and fork go on the same side of the plate, or if you should join a group of friends from middle school to watch an equestrian event because Eighth-grader Ellen Parker is a rider and is sexy-hot, and that is when you feel the rush of competition from other boys looking at her—realize you probably have no chance.

But you got lucky and never inherited a weak gene or over-sensitive neurons from your drunken love-bird parents, genes that might’ve caused you to fall deep into a depression or mental confinement that hinders future decisions. You hate to see the snobbish around you growing up, but your parents have done well financially, which mildly puts you in the tough position to equal them or do better. Expectations squared.

This is how we get to be who we are on planet earth, and we suck oxygen and release carbon dioxide every second to survive long enough to reproduce.

Accidents happen, of course, and many of us do not get to live that long.

Bellies stuffed.

Drunken love birds careen together, shoulders nudging, intentional sarcasm to poke fun and it’s always good to be self-deprecating. Your father realizes this and, oddly, is proud to be free and say whatever he wants around your soon-to-be mother.

They retreat home. Air-conditioned room and they kiss each other with rum-tasted tongues and then undress, hands locked tight, and they will have no recollection six hours later in the throes of their hangover and temple pain, stiff necks.

She says: “I feel crappy.”

He says: “I feel it too, but I love you.”

Ten days pass and, feeling being run down, your future mother takes a pregnancy stick and dribbles her urine on it and waits 15 minutes.

“Mother-fuffer!” she exclaims. “Damn.”

She calls your future father but he’s on a sales call. She does not leave a voice mail. A half hour later he sees that she called and calls her back. He is feeling great, awesome, made a sale and will earn a good commission.

So young at twenty-seven; they both will look back and future father will say, “Honey, where did 2004 go?”

She nods her head, as if being sucked through life’s vortexes, bewildered, craving a drink soon; hunger pains chirping cheap pizza from the grocery.

She is unsure of this new whirlwind of being a momma, carrying something so small that will eventually be as big or bigger than what she is. She’s unsure of what hospital to choose, how much it will all cost after insurance, and setting up the baby room.

Fifty-fifty, she thinks. Isabella (girl); Thomas (boy).

All new to her, all new to him. All he can think about is work and the future date you might arrive.

Of course, they had made the decision to have you. Of course! They embraced it, though she would be lying if she didn’t think about alternatives. Here nor there.

Looking back one day you will realize how lucky you are. Anything could have derailed the process. Mom and Dad could have gotten side-swiped at a busy intersection coming back from the grocery and they could have died. In effect, you would have died.

You could have been born weeks early with a bad heart, lungs. Bad hearts beat out of rhythm, but your mind doesn’t know or hear the skipped beats. Good hearts are just as silent, more resilient.

You think about your existence as a young man. Are you even here at all?

You’ve read Sartre, Nietzsche, Locke, Kierkegaard, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anything contemporary seems derivative.

You are born on ___ date. A Thursday.

You wiggle in a play pin as infancy becomes toddlerhood; you encounter coughs and sneeze attacks, and suffer through painful ear infections, where the ellipses of noises soon become new neuropathways that are less bothersome.

The years flitter.

You’re grown.

Standing at a music concert with your parents, these old people that… you laugh and are in awe of—

I’m a rum baby.

Conception achieved. Yes—indeed—a manipulated conception but at least you get to enjoy this ride called life. How spectacular.

You dance and laugh with each other, and from the corner of your eye, a brown-eyed girl snatches your attention. You meet each other at the bar, and she asks: “You want to dance?” You say, “Hell yeah!” and reach your hand out to hers. In between dances you buy drinks for both of you.

“Let’s switch it up,” she says.

“You want a beer?”

“No. How about a rum and Dr. Pepper?”

And this is how we get here.

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First Memories

My sister Janet had taken me to the hospital for tests, and then we drove across the street to my regular doctor to discuss options. This had been a lingering health problem and it was now time to confront it. Technology now days gave doctors results faster than in the past.

I hated hospitals.

The smell alone could do a person in, let them hang from the confines of the room being placed there in the future, and that smell lingered with me in the car and at the doctor’s office waiting area. Janet skimmed through a magazine with a sexy young celebrity on the cover. They called me back and that was when I was told: “T-cell count out of control.” A mass too close to operate near the brain stem, but chemo might offset the mass and delay the onslaught.  Eventually, if I decide not to do treatment, my immunity would be compromised as the days moseyed on until my last breath. I don’t know when that will be, hell, nobody knows when their last day on this planet is. I’m cool with it. At forty-five, a person should have their life figured out and have lived well enough to enjoy any memories. Janet hummed to a pop song on the radio as we headed to my apartment. She kept saying how we Powells are fighters and I can’t leave her because I’m the only sibling left to poke fun at and reminisce about old Indiana days. “You want something to eat? Chipotle, Applebee’s? My treat, Johnny. I need to pick up Sophie soon, so let’s not be capricious on this decision.”

I clicked her XM radio button and heard a Tom Petty song and it changed my mood. We drove by Panda Express and it sounded good to me, and told Janet: “Panda, you missed the turn.”

“Jesus, okay. Next time, a heads up would be nice.”

She had gotten nervous and banked right on the next turn.

She was still married, which was surprising because Janet could be hard to figure out, hard to get her to agree with any of your conversations about current events or something deep and profound like the death penalty or assisted suicide, or if humans really had free will and if God existed, who then created God?

“I haven’t been here in ages,” she said. “It’s okay.”

We walked inside Panda and I ordered the Kung Pao chicken and Janet ordered grilled Teriyaki with broccoli.

“I should have eaten more of that in my twenties,” I said, nodding at the broccoli on Janet’s plate.

“Why?”

“Chemicals in it supposedly suppress free radicals.”

“Bullshit,” she remarked. “Not saying it isn’t good for you, but please.”

“You remember your first memory,” I asked her. “As a toddler?”

She handed the lady at the end of the line her debit card and pulled a cold fruit drink out of the ice rack.

“I’ve kind of been craving an ice tea,” I said. “So, Janet? First memories?”

“Not sure, Johnny. I think I remember running into a wall one time. I was probably two or three then. What brought this up?”

“Been thinking about Mom and Dad.”

“Yeah. Well, they’re no longer around and that’s how life goes.”

Her voice sounded staggered, guilt-ridden. Janet had been fourteen when I found our mother lying on her side in her bed, her eyes like fogged glass, wide open. She lay unresponsive, the old aqua green rotary phone beside her. Mom had a way of calming people, and Janet referred to her as “pseudo-therapist.” Mother smoked a lot, as most parents did in the late 1970s, and I still remember those gray smoke ovals around her mouth. She and her girlfriend Barbara would hang out on the porch sunbathing, drinking vodka with Dr. Pepper. I would not know what that was until later, of course.

“I remember Dad,” Janet said. “Man, that voice of his! He had the deepest and resounding baritone voice that shook the house when he got agitated at Mom.”

“I know. Scared me shitless.”

“It seems so long ago, almost forty years, and yet so close, those memories.”

She stared out the window and I noticed when I looked that I saw a few brown leaves skitter across the sidewalk, the sky a deep gray and the hint that winter was not too far off.

“Anyway,” I said. “Old mom. I can still see her body shadowed against the wall, getting bigger and bigger as she neared my room. It was my first memory, and I must’ve been younger than two, shaking the crib rails.”

“Wow! You’ve always had a fantastic memory. I wish I had your recall, Johnny.”

“It’s all right. Wish that it could have helped making me money or land a better career.”

I hated sales. As I got older, I began to despise people; the world was becoming packed and crammed with more people every day who drove everywhere and seemingly, like little buggers that chew and poke at you from a distance with their pale angered faces and withered hands hanging out the car windows.

“Well,” Janet said, “in life there’s not much time to do everything. Find one or two things that you enjoy and make the best of it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“They loved us, John. Mom and Dad. They did the best they could.”

Dad’s lips seemed to carry away any remnants of cigarette or cigar smoke; scabby triangles on his hands had healed and looked purple. Dad’s eyes, those huge irises—culminated an authority that you knew when to keep quiet.

I would hear Mom say that her hair was in rat tangles. Mom held the phone to her ear in the bedroom for what seemed like hours, the door almost closed but a slight crack of an opening where I could see her. She’d talk to her friends, as if soaking in their problems and felt a need to cajole out respect and to help ease any sudden discomfort in them.

By 1979, Mom had gotten hooked on Darvocet and drank more vodka. The economy had tanked. Dad said it was President Carter’s fault. Everyone argued about money and feared nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Mom abandoned us forever at the age of thirty-eight in June of 1979, and I found her with her eyes open on that summer day while Dad was at work and Janet at the local park swimming pool with friends. I went over to Mr. and Mrs. Steven’s house and they called for an ambulance. Dad’s foggy eyes slowly took on mother’s as the years flittered on after her death, and he began to work less hours and sat on the front porch alone with a beer or wine drink reading the newspaper.

Dad would later follow Mom in 1982, something about a blown aorta because of his high blood pressure and Type-A personality. He was only forty-nine; I’d just turned twelve while Janet was a sophomore in high school, and we would go live with our Aunt Karen and Uncle Mike in Martinsville, Indiana.

I told Janet, rather randomly, as we drove toward my apartment: “It will be impossible to know you are dead. It would totally go against the laws of biology and physics.”

She quickly turned her head at me with one hand on the steering wheel.

“Souls,” she said. “They prevail. Or maybe the brain funnels our memories, twists the images like light bending around matter in space? Eventually, yeah, you are no longer you and time is up. You had your chances.”

I cringed thinking about that hospital, knowing that was where I would live out the rest of my days.

The sky was cloudless and the chill in the air made the bare trees and farmland look like the color of coiled old barb wire. Janet looped her fingers at the ends of her hair. She resembled our mother in many ways but had outlived her. A few more years and I will have caught up to our Dad’s age, but I don’t know if I will catch him, to see the world as he had. I won’t have any children and marry the lady of my life, but that’s okay. I was not big on romance. I’d had a few girlfriends over the years, some good, some not-so great, and some were calm and accepted their flaws and had let life come at them as if there was nothing they could do to change their fate.

“Chemo,” my doctor’s voice rewinding in my head. “Too risky to operate.”

I told Janet that I could move to Oregon and take a special cocktail and drift away with my memories.

She stepped on the brake hard.

“Stop it, John!” she yelled. “You’re going to man up and fight this.”

“What’s there to fight?”

“We Powells are not quitters,” she said, and jabbed at the radio button. “Eventually, like what I’ve been saying, yes, the big rest happens to everyone. I am sorry. Life is a one-way ticket filled with choices and things that are beyond our control.”

“And what is it really, life? Our lives?”

She looked down when thinking. She’d always done this. She stared back at the road. A squirrel darted in front of the car and disappeared behind a tree. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was Janet or our mother talking. Maybe Mom was living through her?

“Survival,” she said. “Meaning of life. Trying to earn a living, reproducing. I don’t know. It has different meanings for everyone.”

“True,” I said. “But I’m dying now and this means it’s pretty shitty.”

She dropped me off in front of my apartment unit and it started to rain a little. You could hear it tatter harder against parked cars and the apartment rooftop.

“Let’s Face Chat later,” she said. “Okay? We can discuss your treatments next week. I can take you. I don’t mind waiting. I have PTO build up at work. This won’t be as bad as it seems, John. Isn’t that true with most things? How we conjure up events or appointments more intense than they really are?”

I nodded yes.

“If you call I might answer,” I said.

“It’s going to be okay.”

“I pretend this is a bad roller coaster that I’m on and it will end soon.”

“I gotta run,” she said. “Need to pick up Sophie from Pre-K.”

“Bye, Janet.”

Sophie was Janet’s five-year-old girl. She and Phil had adopted. Janet hasn’t discussed Phil that much and if he’s impotent, but every time I hear Janet call out her daughter’s name, it makes me think about it and then I laugh to myself.

I went inside and turned on the television, the horrid news events and something BREAKING about Donald Trump and his advisors taking military action in the Middle East (after the big attack). I took in a gulp of orange Gatorade and it clinched my thirst and worries of the day. I made a turkey sandwich on wheat and eased into the recliner and flipped through the channels. First memories: I glanced down the hall and I looked for Mom’s shadow, her giant head lingering through the doorway, making sure that I was all right. It had to be her, or maybe I had just dozed off and my brain playing tricks on me.

Offsite

Our boss sent out a random e-mail to our department on that Monday before Thanksgiving. I worked in the ad department for a leading retailer, and in those sloppy matter-of-fact phrases without any punctuation, boss man Pearson wrote:

“I know it’s short notice guys have an idea meeting offsite tomorrow 9am Starbucks. Bring laptops.”

The day after Thanksgiving… we all knew the ordeal. But Pearson was a newbie and came from the car industry, had lots of ideas and seemed cool enough. He was young, like twenty-eight, but you could tell being a manager had aged him. His eyes were always heavy-looking with dark marks and lines under them, and he was always biting at his fingernails.

Linda Felton replied back to ALL:

“Nice! You want me to help control the stampede of the wild buffalo early Friday morning?”

“I just want to make sure everyone knows their role and last push for the big advertisement,” continued Pearson. “The sales department has that covered, Linda.”

Coworker, Leslie Blare scooted her chair up to my cube. She sat to my right, in the newer cube. Leslie was confident and talkative; I felt a subtle attraction toward her. That morning I was tired after being up most of the night with Molly, my beagle-mix; she had a rough night breathing. She was almost fourteen, and my thoughts jumped from her fading health back to Leslie, then to Pearson’s e-mail again.

“So cool,” said Leslie. “Pearson must’ve read what I sent him yesterday.”

“Sent him?”

“I made suggestions,” she said.

“You suggested to Pearson that we meet at Starbucks? Why?”

“It was a forward on office productivity. An article about how creativity and performance increase when taking your teams to offsite locations every now and then.”

“Hey, anything to break up the monotony around here,” I said.

“You want to ride together?” Leslie asked.

I caught a glimpse of her face from the corner of my eye. I imagined that she was pressing her lips together, waiting for a reply. Those lips, I thought. I would rather be with Leslie on a date than be talking business crap, or be compressed together with other employees at a noisy Starbucks.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Which, what?” Leslie said.

“Which Starbucks are we going to?”

“I don’t know. Good question.”

I clicked on the e-mail thread and stared at the word offsite. A paragraph below read:

“Meet at the Starbucks off Tillison Ave just 5 minutes from our office, everyone knows where at right?”

You know, I said to Leslie, “I’m sure Pearson’s making five times my salary, and apparently, doesn’t know proper punctuation and grammar. How the hell does that happen, Les?”

“Should I tell him? He seems pretty laid back. Or would that be too rude?”

“Don’t say anything,” I said.

I swiveled my chair up to hers.

“So, you want me to pick you up?” I asked. “I’ll drive.”

“You read my mind, Trevor. In the morning, just come by my house. I’ll text you the directions. Cool?”

For some reason, Leslie did not drive. She told me she had her driver’s license, but doesn’t drive and does not care to own a car. And I could tell in all seriousness that she didn’t want to go into reasons why. Leslie was married to a guy named Winton Blare. He was ten years her senior. I think Leslie told me that her husband was forty- six, but from pictures, the poor man looked much older. She referred to him as her “Soon-to-be ex.”

It felt odd that I was attracted to a married woman. It had been going on for the last three months. I’d flirted with her, here and there, but didn’t want to pursue her any further, knowing that she was married to Winton. In a way, I don’t think she was my type. She seemed spoiled, perhaps too goofy and too jokey for me, not to mention way too positive and happy-go-lucky, unfazed by any kind of wrongdoing throughout her early thirtysomething life. She and Winton didn’t have any kids together. He had a daughter, Amy, around the age of twenty, from a previous marriage. Amy lived in Chicago, according to Leslie.

But it was true that Leslie had a certain radiance about her, as if her attractiveness usurped feelings and lust into a gigantic bag that fitted tightly around my head and could not remove for some reason. I wondered if she really meant that she and Winton were getting a divorce, or if that’s what she really wanted but was just kidding?

The next morning a layer of fog blanketed a mist over my windshield. The morning news said there were school delays. But the fog had lifted, and I was on my way to pick up Leslie. I sent her a text message that I was leaving and on my way over. A few seconds later, I saw that Leslie had replied. She sent me her address and street, and I had a vague idea where it was, but I entered it into my phone map and it came up.

Stoneybrooke Ridge was where doctors, lawyers, and dentists lived. I had no clue on what Winton did for a living, but I’m sure that he was well-off, or doing great for himself financially. I knew that Leslie couldn’t afford to live in these houses on her salary. As soon as I turned into the addition, a cop car flew by me. All lights. No siren. For a second, I thought he was after me for going through the yellow light that magically turned red as I plowed through the intersection a mile back.

Then another cop car followed. What was going on and what could be this urgent? When I got to Leslie’s house, a total of three cop cars were in front, and my heart began to pound, not just in my chest but the sound of it in my ears, the tinge of the pulse through my jugular, the tightening of my eyes as I squinted over my glasses. I could have been in “flight or fight,” ready to floor the gas pedal or get out and run just in case some lunatic came my way.

I heard a tap on my side of the car window. Leslie stood there holding her coffee mug and pointed her thumb toward the house behind her.

“Hey, my house is across the street. I saw your car.”

“What’s going on?” I said, getting out.

“We heard three gun shots at the house. Winton 911’d and here we are. Go figure. The Kleengers have always had issues. Domestic. Problems with their teen son. I don’t know. This is not the first time.”

“Damn.”

A man hurried up to the car. My eyes roved straight at Winton’s giant forehead and blondish tufts of receding hair; he pulled his tan robe over his chest, had on jeans, and stood stoutly in grass-stained Converse tennis shoes, sockless, half smiling and eating a piece of toast.

“You must be Trevor Patterson? I’m Winton. Thanks for driving Leslie. I am deep in meetings this morning, conference calls and shit, or I would have taken her.”

“No problem,” I said, peering into their garage and seeing a silver Jaguar. “Are we OK to be here? You need to give a statement to the police?”

“I already did,” said Winton, taking another chomp out of his toast. “As far as I know, I think Mrs. Kleenger shot him, her husband, Stanley.”

“Hey, the dickhead had it coming,” said Leslie. “The way he treated Jill—”

Leslie was dressed in a gray parka, blue blouse. It was not cold or really warm, and we had had an unusually warm November. Today was a little chillier. You could see puffs of our breath. Leslie leaned into her husband and gave him a peck on his clean-shaven cheek.

“Bye, honey. Don’t be mad if Trevor and I jet to Costa Rica on your dime.”

“You kids have fun,” said Winton. “Hey Trevor, Leslie mentioned you guys are spending the day offsite. I think it’s a good idea, get a fresh look at your work.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll be more creative.”

So bizarre. I felt crestfallen. I felt panicked. An exhilaration overcame me that I might be sucked into a plane engine or that my parachute may not open all the way.

Leslie’s aqua flash of fingernails hit against her coffee mug, and then her wrist bracelets clanged. I got the feeling that she and Winton were fine, that no divorce was imminent. I was cool with it, even though I would not mind running off to, as she said jokingly—Costa Rica. I would enjoy it with Leslie.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Winton can be strangely intrusive, overly optimistic.”

“Oh no, I didn’t take him that way. He seems like an easy-going kind of guy. Very laid back.”

“We both are. I don’t know if our marriage will work. I don’t know about things anymore, but I’m happy where I am in my life. He makes good money, runs a division for Marshlon Pharma. You know, the big drug company? He’s been there for twenty some years. I can’t imagine being on my own, living in a smaller house or in an apartment. But we’ll see. We do keep things simple. We really do have a good relationship, but sometimes I feel out of love, out of how it was when we first met and how he made me feel. All of that seems replaced by material things, the threat that it all could be taken away.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.

“I like you, Trevor. If I was not married to Winton, I would definitely be interested in seeing you in a more than a-friend-kind-of-way. You know?”

She put her hand on my hand, but her fingers slid into the ridge of my fingers and down to my wrist.

“Turn right,” she said. “Starbucks is down there. You See it?”

“I see it. I know.”

“I think this will be fun. I’ll buy our drinks.”

“Pearson should buy. You think?”

She looked at me for a second or two, but it felt longer, as if she’d found some flaw in my face and was wondering about how that had happened or if it had been there before and she just didn’t notice, or if I was older than I said I was, or perhaps not as “attractive” as she once thought.

“Yes, he should. Maybe he will. I don’t see his jeep. We’re a little early.”

“Yes, we are, but that’s OK.”

“Let’s just sit here.”

We leaned in together with our chins touching, our lips close, and I could taste her gloss and it happened fast—we started to make out.

She eased away.

I felt my pulse again, in my neck and around the temples, my eyes blurry for some odd reason, the strobe of red and blue police lights flashing through my mind from earlier.

“Let’s stop,” she said. “I can’t.”

“I’m good. You good?”

“I’m fine.”

We got out and walked inside Starbucks and we were the only ones there from the office, and we waited for ten minutes, but Leslie got antsy and said she could not wait any longer and went to the front and ordered our drinks.

“Hazelnut Latte,” I said. “Make it a Grande.”

A few seconds later Pearson pulled up in his red SUV. Mel Farmington, another coworker, parked his Chevy Malibu beside my car. Jenny Dixon showed up and then Linda Felton. We had most of the marketing department. Pearson was smiling and walking with more pep in his step and had his Mac laptop curled under his arm.

“This is great,” he said. “This is awesome. It’s almost here. D-Day. Let’s all just relax, just work on whatever it is you were working on, and try to finish all ads today. Happy Thanksgiving. I will reimburse your drinks. Order as many as you want.”

Leslie pulled her chair around and handed me my latte. She tapped her finger on her phone and then to my arm. I read her phone screen, a message from Winton:

“It was not Jill,” she said. “It was their son, Eric. They arrested Eric. Stanley is dead.”

And there it was again, that long stare from Leslie as if my flaw popped out and she was intrigued.

“He deserved it,” she said. “He was an awful, awful man.”