Social skills

by Crew Schielke   

Chris Kahl didn’t want to go to the party, but his wife, Julie, made him. Saturday evenings were supposed to be reserved for UFC on ESPN+, and there was a great fight card that night. The thought he’d miss it just to mingle with other parents from his daughter’s Catholic high school was torturous and caused him to question the wisdom of a number of major life decisions.

“And don’t even think about hiding in some corner to stare at your phone,” said Julie. “I was mortified when Elenore told me you did that at her party.” Julie, sitting next to Chris in the front passenger seat, puckered her lips in the sun visor’s mirror to put on lipstick. “Try to drive around the potholes.” She flashed him a septic look. “You don’t have to hit every single bump, thank you.”

“Yes, dear.” Last time, three weeks ago, Chris went solo to a parents-only get-together at Elenore’s house. Julie had to take her uncle Mordecai into the city for chemo treatment. Going it alone to a mixer had been even more mortifying. All the other parents came as couples. Having no one to hide behind, or even just to stand next to, put him in a spotlight. Staring at his phone, he’d watched a live UFC event on ESPN+. This stopped his lower lip from quivering and helped avert a panic attack. But he didn’t tell Julie this. Just, “Yes, dear.”

The GPS told Chris where to turn.

“Would you look at these houses.” Julie pointed a freshly manicured fingernail at a line of mansions. “I’d take any of them. Gorgeous. Wow.”

“No neighbors parking hoopties on the front lawn,” said Karen. “Or in front of your house.” The Kahls’ fifteen-year-old daughter sat in the backseat of Chris’s Subaru Impreza.

“Isabella’s dad, Carlos, owns seven car dealerships,” said Julie.

“They’re super rich,” said Karen.

“You should talk to him at the party.” Julie put her hand on Chris’s thigh. “Tell him you design websites. Give him your business card. You’ve got to work it, baby, if you want to make it in this world.”

“Automotive dealership websites are a specialized industry. A big job like that never goes to an independent like me.”

“You’ll never know unless you try,” Julie squeezed his leg and took back her hand. “Remember what Raul said?” She snapped her fingers. “You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there: network, socialize, make a pitch like it’s small talk. Fill the gaps of silence with how you can simplify other peoples’ lives.”

“Yes, dear.”

Raul was the motivational speaker whose self-improvement class Julie had made Chris attend last Spring—as her birthday present to him. This summer, and, in particular, today, Chris was expected to put on display what he’d learned.

“Push through the difficult part of your goal. I remember,” Chris parroted the mantra.

“This is it,” Karen pointed. “The one on the top of the hill.”

“Wow,” said Julie. “Just wow.” She put her makeup away. “Is the driveway paved with marble?”

“Looks like it,” said Chris. The three-story neo-classical palace had four white pillars by the front door, a veranda that wrapped around the entire structure, and a circular driveway lined with sculpted garden bushes the size and shape of the red balls outside Target. “Great, they have valet.” Chris drove with one hand and, with the other, took out a valet key from his tactical bag, resting on the center console.

“No. Don’t pull into the driveway,” said Julie.

“Why not?” Chris cast a furtive glance at her with a wrinkled brow.

“Find parking on the street. I don’t want them seeing us pull up in your Impreza.”

“Are you serious? These people see me drop off Karen at school every diddly day in this same car.”

Julie’s harsh look prompted Chris to roll his eyes. “Yes, dear.”

They found a spot on a side street a few blocks away.

Julie and Karen walked in front of Chris. Their summer dresses flattered their slim figures—Julie’s solid yellow, Karen’s white and green. He followed them in tan cargo shorts and a white collared shirt, carrying a chocolate cake tied up in a cardboard bakery box.

“Do you really have to bring your man purse, Dad?” Karen didn’t break stride as she turned to look at Chris from the corner of her eye.

“It’s not a man purse,” said Chris. “It’s a tactical bag.”

“Leave your dad alone, Karen.” Julie looked at Chris with a plastic grin. “He brought his bag so I don’t have to carry my mine.”

The valet instructed the Kahls to follow a cobblestone walkway to the rear of the house. A tall man stood at the iron gate like a sentinel. His light green polo shirt showed off his huge biceps, and his blue tennis shorts exposed ripped thigh muscles. He held a small canvas bag with a zipper in his veiny hands.

“You remember Ben’s father?” Chris overheard his daughter ask his wife in a whisper.

“It’s Simon, right?” asked Julie.

Karen nodded.

A thick wall of Holly trees girded inside the gate. The plant’s sharp green leaves and poisonous red berries looked pretty in their design to discourage human contact.

Chris recognized the family of three that Simon had just admitted through the gate.

“Did they just give him money?” Chris pointed to Simon putting legal tender in the zippered bag.

“Shhh,” whispered Julie. “Stop pointing.”

The gate closed with a loud clank.

The woman Simon had just admitted waved to Julie through the bars and said, “Hey, girl.”

“Hi, Sue.”

Sue raised the brown paper bag in her hand as an excuse not to stop and chat. “I’ll see you inside, okay?”

"Yeah. See you in a bit.”

Sue disappeared to join the man and boy she’d come with behind the barricade of Holly.

“Hi, Simon,” Julie offered a cheek for him to kiss. “I see you’re in charge of security today.”

Simon and Chris shook hands, a tight squeeze, and locked eyes.

Simon turned to Julie and said, “I didn’t know there’d be a cover charge. Had no cash on me.” He cleared his throat and smiled.

“Cover charge?” Julie’s horrified open-mouthed expression transmogrified into faux bewilderment. “Why is there a cover charge?”

“It’s a fundraiser for the Holy Face Foundation.” Simon blushed and grabbed the gate with one arm, as if trying to present a casual armpit. “I was going to leave Ben to go search for an ATM, but Elise asked me to work it off instead,” Simon’s embarrassed laugh was endearing, “By collecting from the other guests.”

“How much?” asked Chris.

“Fifty-bucks,” said Simon.

Chris slowly opened his mouth, but no words came out.

Simon seemed prepared for this. “I’m supposed to say it’s Father Mark’s idea—to help lower the cost of tuition for everyone. It’s tax deductible as a charitable contribution. So, don’t be cheap.” Simon laughed again disarmingly.

Chris handed the cake to Karen. He swung his tactical bag from back to front to extract his wallet. Then he paused to look at Julie. “Do you want me to pay it?”

Karen, standing quietly beside her parents, protested with a hushed whine, “Dad.”

Chris narrowed his eyes at Simon. “Can you give us a receipt?”

“Sure.” Simon took out a pen and small slip of paper from his canvas bag and began scribbling.

“Don’t squeeze the cake like that, Karen,” said Julie. “Daddy’s just being funny.” She cast another plastic smile at Chris. “Just pay the man, honey.”

“Yes, dear.” Chris gave Simon three twenties in exchange for a ten. “Never mind the receipt.”

Simon put the slip of paper in his pocket and swung open the gate. “Follow the balloons to the party. Everyone’s in the backyard by the pool.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this was a pool party?” Chris asked as the Kahls walked around the house.

“Because I didn’t want you to hide in the center of the pool and not talk to anyone, like you did at the Callahan’s party last year, that’s why.” Julie’s harsh tone was belied by her coy grin, in case someone was watching.

“Welcome, Kahl family,” Elise—mother of Isabella, wife of Carlos, and host of this party—snuck up on them from behind as they stood gawking at the enormous kidney shaped pool. “So glad you could make it.”

“You have a beautiful home,” said Chris. “I’ve never seen a pool with an island before. That’s pretty cool.”

“Thank you,” said Elise. The pool was surrounded by pink pavers. The island at its center had a tree and four reclining lounge chairs. Music and guests mingled with the mouthwatering smell of barbeque saturating the air. Filet mignon, shrimp, lobster, sushi and other delectables were spread out on two long tables by the grill.

“How do you cut the lawn on the island?” asked Chris.

Elise laughed. “Our landscaper is very ingenuitive.” She pointed to the lopsided paper box in Karen’s hands. “Let me take the cake, Karen. Please, make yourselves at home. Drinks by the bar. Would you like me to take your purse, Chris?”

“It’s a tactical bag,” said Chris. “I’ll keep it. Thanks.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll be right back. Just going to put the cake in the fridge. Carlos is downstairs. Some people are inside. You see who’s by the pool. I think you know everyone.” She didn’t wait for a response. “Just ask if you need anything.”

“Thanks,” said Julie. She turned to Chris and whispered, “Stop drooling over the house. Try not to seem so provincial.”

Ingenuitive is not even a word,” said Karen.

“It’s the barbeque that’s making me drool.” Chris took out a folded sheet of paper towel from his bag and pretended to wipe his face.

“Shhh. Both of you, stick by me.” Julie followed Elise into the kitchen.

“Yes, dear.” Chris offered his arm to Karen.

She declined to take it. A sigh, like a punctured tire, blew from her teeth, with a slight shake of her head.

Chris and Karen shadowed Julie as she joined a circle of four moms in the kitchen.

One of the moms, Tara, the coach of Karen’s track team, was the mother of Gloria, the school’s star athlete. Tara wore movie star sunglasses and a straw hat. Her tight body looked about ready to pop out of her blue two-piece bathing suit. Her modesty provocatively preserved by a maroon robe that stopped halfway down the sweet curves of her ass.  

“So nice you all could make it this time,” said Tara. “I know how Chris doesn’t like to come to these things alone.” Tara winked at Chris behind dark shades.

“Well,” Julie cackled. “It’s hard sometimes for me to get away. Saturday is when I normally see patients at my office. I have a private practice to run, plus a full-time job, mother, wife, you know, it’s a lot—”

“I’m sure it’s hard,” said Sue, no longer with her paper bag. “Love the lipstick. Is that mauve?”

“Magenta, actually,” said Julie. She turned to Tara. “Besides, Chris has been working on improving his social skills, small talk, mingling, right Chris?”

“Yes, dear.”

Julie smiled with malevolence at Tara. “He’s fine to handle himself in any situation.”

“I have no doubt,” said Tara. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll take a dip in the pool.” Tara casually removed a piece of lint from Chris’s shirt as she walked out the glass sliding door.

“Did you see that?” asked Mary Lou, a short, sour looking woman with close cropped hair. Her green cuffed shorts exposed stubby legs that resembled cottage cheese. Varicose veins ran down to her fat ankles.

“See what?” asked Julie, her dander still up.

“Did she just pinch you, Chris?” Mary Lou put her hand over her mouth after she asked this.

Chris looked behind him with feigned surprise. “Me? No. I didn’t. . .”

Julie and Karen both glared at him with the same hostile scrutiny.

“Did she put her hands on you?” asked Julie.

“I didn’t feel anything.” Chris shrugged with all the innocence in the world.

Elise joined them in the kitchen where they were talking. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all,” said Sue. “We’re all just admiring your kitchen.”

“Thanks,” said Elise. “It’s great for parties.” Elise looked around the kitchen. “Have you seen Maria?”

“Who?” asked Mary Lou.

“Carlos’s mom. Elderly. Wearing tan slacks and a green blouse.” Elise pinched her own shirt. “It has a flower pattern.”

“I saw her by the bar about ten minutes ago,” said Sue.

“No surprise there.” Elise laughed and looked out through the glass sliding door.

“Do you see her?” asked Sue.

“No. But don’t worry. I’ll find her.” Elise turned to Karen. “A lot of the kids are upstairs.” She pointed through the open kitchen to a split staircase by the front door’s vestibule. “Want me to take you up there?”

“Don’t bother,” said Julie. “Chris will go with her, okay honey?”

“Yes, dear.”

Chris noticed, as if for the first time, how his daughter was growing up so fast, becoming a woman. Just yesterday, she was his baby girl. Now, about to be a sophomore in high school, she was too cool to take his arm. Nostalgia nearly brought a tear to his eye as he followed her up the stairs, admiring the pattern of her dress.

At the top of the stairs, Karen approached the door to the left. Loud music came from behind it. Chris was amazed he hadn’t heard the music until they reached the top of the stairs.

“The acoustics in this place are weird,” he said.

Karen opened the door.

Parents and high school students danced rapturously on a makeshift disco floor. Spinning lights flashed in rhythm with the music’s bass like a disorienting heartbeat of the room.

They walked in together.

“There’s no way I’m dancing like that,” Chris said to Karen as he closed the door behind them.

“You better not,” Karen said.

Chris smiled with relief. They walked together away from the top of the stairs, the music and the dance floor. Karen pulled open a heavy door that led into an adjacent room. It squeaked loudly on brass hinges.

Chris pulled a string hanging from the ceiling. A naked light bulb revealed a cluttered attic. Karen shut the door behind them with another loud squeak. Needs oil. The room was amazingly quiet despite its proximity to the dancing. It smelled like weed. Someone coughed.

“Yo, Frank, is that you?” A male adolescent voice called out in a hushed tone.

A female voice said, “Shhh,” then giggled.

Behind a clothes rack, Chris and Karen found a skinny young man wearing a camouflage bandana, gray tee shirt and green cargo shorts. He sat cross-legged on the floor by an open window next to a very pretty girl. Chris recognized Gloria, Tara’s daughter, Holy Face’s star athlete. Smoke and dust particles tumbled through a slanted shaft of sunlight that terminated on the attic’s wood plank floor.

“Who’s Frank?” Chris asked.

“Isabella’s older brother,” said Karen. She sat cross-legged next to the boy and Gloria. “Hi, Ben.” Karen smiled at the boy warmly. She leaned forward to exchange cheek kisses with Gloria.

Ben looked at Chris, raised his chin, then slid a questioning look at Karen.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s my dad, Chris. It’s cool.” Karen turned to her father. “Dad, meet Ben. You know Gloria already.”

Chris deepened his voice. “Hello. How’s it going?”

Gloria, a spitting image of her mother, Tara, adjusted her long brown ponytail, as if to show off her perky breasts. “All right, Chris. Welcome. Join us.”

Chris sat cross legged too.

Ben shrugged and reached between his thighs for a small glass pipe and Zippo. “You seen Frank?”

“No. Not yet. We just got here,” said Karen.

Ben packed the pipe with weed from a small Ziplock. He handed it to Karen along with the lighter. She hit it and blew the pungent smoke out the open window.

Chris said nothing. When Karen handed the pipe and lighter to him, he took them.

“Careful, man,” said Ben. “It’s potent shit.”

Should he hit it? She told them he was cool. Why warn him it’s potent and not Karen? Chris hadn’t smoked pot in more than fifteen years. Not since he’d quit drinking alcohol. He’d sometimes play with the idea of trying it again, inspired by rumors of paraphernalia discovered at Stratford-Upon-Avon. But he had never followed through. Fear of cross-addiction thwarted him. Anyway, he had no connections anymore to people who could get him weed. Plus, imagine Julie’s wrath if she found out he’d smoked illegal drugs with their daughter. But how could he refuse?

Chris shook his head to fricassee these musings and brought the glass pipe to his lips. He pressed his thumb down on the lighter and pulled the flame over the packed bowl, watching the orange tongue lick the green bud. First it turned it red, then black, finally gray and white. He put the pipe and lighter in one hand and brought the other in a clenched fist to his mouth and coughed into it.

He went to pass back the pipe and lighter, but hesitated whether to give it to Ben or Gloria.

Gloria took them and brought the pipe to her lips. Her eyes fixed on Chris, she winked at him as she sucked on the glass stem, taking an overtly erotic hit.

The only thing that hit him right away was his guilt. There went his credibility as a father. It’s not like she respected him before, anyway. He tried to remember. Relaxed or paranoid? His mind drifted. What was he just thinking? He waved spread fingers in front of his face. Already there’s a trail. Ok. he was high. Could it be psychosomatic? Nope. Whoa.

Ben packed the bowl again. He and Karen took another hit. Karen said something as she passed the pipe and lighter back to her father. Chris saw her lips move, followed by a sound like her voice distorted by echoes.

“Thanks,” he said and took the pipe and lighter. As he drew more smoke into his mouth, three things happened.

First, Karen and Ben engaged in a ravenous kiss.

Next, Gloria ran a wet tongue seductively over her lips, with half closed eyes fixed on Chris.

Finally, a loud squeak sounded like a bird calling for its mate. “Who’s smoking weed in here?!” A woman’s angry voice with a thick Spanish accent split open the attic’s mood. “Diablo! I can’t believe you fucking pendejos dare smoke marimba in mi casa.”

Chris, seated cross legged by the window, still with the pipe in his mouth, bent forward closer to the floor. He hadn’t realized he was so flexible. The pipe thudded off the wood planks, spilling its lit and burning contents on his shorts. He brushed the ash and embers off him and exhaled out the window.

“I fucking see you there, you little Singao! What’s your name? I’m calling the cops. Get up. Come over here.”

Chris turned to see Karen, Ben and Gloria, all three wide-eyed, looking back at him as they quietly crept to the other side of the room, hiding themselves in the cluttered attic garret behind a rack of clothes.

What to do with the pipe? Chris couldn’t find a place to hide it. Not in the pocket of his cargo shorts. Couldn’t lift up the floorboards. Tried to tuck it behind exposed insulation in the wall, but it stuck out like an erection in a Speedo. He put it in the secret hidden pocket of his tactical bag. Put the bag on the floor in a corner.

At the sound of heavy footsteps, Chris dove through the screen. Out the window. Onto the roof. He did a somersault and leapt off the shingles. Landed on his feet on the grass who knows how many feet below? Tucked and rolled. The soft grass of the well-manicured backyard lawn absorbed much of the force of impact. Amazingly, he was all right, still with the Zippo in hand. He tossed it into the bushes.

The backyard was fenced in. More of those damned Holly trees’ sharp leaves. The woman upstairs screamed out the window, “Esto hijo de puta no sabe con quien se mete!”

He made a break for the front of the house. Another attic window opened along the side of the house. Incomprehensible abuse rained down like a torrent.

At the front of the house, a line of people now stood waiting to pass through the gate. Chris doubled back. The woman in the window continued her pursuit, shrieking obscenities, “You fucking fuck, fuck you. Bald freak, I hope you get ass raped in prison. Maricón.”

Chris barreled through the Holly trees, torn up by their sharp leaves, and vaulted over the iron fence into the neighbor’s yard. The tall bushes blocked the angry woman out of sight and sound. He ran his finger over a few long scratches on his calf. He was bleeding.

Rough! A Rottweiler came sprinting across the lawn. Frantic eyes and snapping jaws. A chain link fence along the side street looked easier to climb. The dog ripped a patch of material from the seat of Chris’s shorts without puncturing the skin underneath. That was close.

He hustled to his car, alarmed to see his underwear through the new hole in his shorts. His keys were in his bag. He grimaced at his reflection in the window. Why did he not take his bag with him out the window? Secret pocket whatever, how could he have been so stupid to put the pipe in his bag? Then he remembered the valet key. He had taken it out of his bag in the car and left it in his pocket. He opened the door. A pillowcase stuffed with dirty clothes bound for the dry cleaners still in the trunk. Thank God he forgot to drop them off yesterday. He changed into a wrinkled pair of green slacks and a short-sleeved button-down shirt and put on his beige fishing hat after taking out all the hooks.

By the time he got back to the iron gate, the line was gone. Not even Simon remained. He worked the latch and opened the gate. Walked in like he owned the place.

“Going fishing?” Simon was the first familiar face.

“You’re not going to charge me another fifty bucks, are you?” Chris quipped.

“Why are you dressed like that?” Julie walked up to Chris with a margarita glass in her hand.

“I had a little accident. Had a change of clothes in my car.”

Julie looked around. “Where’s Karen?”

“She’s upstairs.”

“You’re all wrinkled.” Julie ironed his back with her palm.

“What happened to your neck?” asked Tara. “Looks like you got into a fight with a cat. And lost.”

“I’ll have to remember next time not to stand so close to a Holly tree.” Chris felt the sting now from a scratch behind his ear.

Julie handed Chris a few napkins. “You’re bleeding.”

Chris dabbed his neck with a napkin to staunch the blood. He folded the rest and put them in his pocket.

Elise came out of the kitchen. “Chris, can I speak with you privately?”

“Why do you look flustered?” Tara asked Elise.

“Is everything all right?” asked Julie.

“It’s nothing.” Elise forced a smile. “Just need to steal Chris for one teeny second.”

“Of course,” said Julie. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

“Yes. No worries. We’ll just be a minute,” said Elise.

“Nice hat.” Tara whispered in Chris’s ear and pinched his ass while Julie was distracted with Elise. “Your pants are a little wrinkled too,” she said with a wink.

“I know. It’s a long story.” Chris smiled back at her then followed Elise through the kitchen into a butler’s pantry.

“You know this isn’t themed as a costume party, right?” said Elise.

“I know.” Chris laughed. “It’s a long story.”

Elise shrugged as if she didn’t want to hear it. “Will you talk to Carlos for me?”

Chris felt a bead of sweat forming on his brow. “Sure. About what?”

Elise sighed. “His mother, Maria.”

He swallowed hard.

“She’s upstairs right now causing ruckus. Her dementia is getting worse.”

He widened his eyes and nodded with a serious look, hoping to conceal his relief.

“I think she needs to be in a nursing home. Or assisted living or something.” Elise sucked in air unevenly and sobbed.

Chris pulled a napkin from his pocket and handed it to her. She blew her nose like a fog horn. “Julie told me how you put your mom in a home.” Elise looked at him with a strange gleam in her eyes. “And that she’s happy there.”

Chris nodded without saying anything.

“Will you tell Carlos about your positive experience?”

“I guess.” Chris was none too eager to have a heavy conversation on the subject with his host. “Has Carlos already formed a strong opinion on the matter?”

“He’s afraid the people who work at a home would neglect or abuse her.” Elise blew her nose again. “She can be difficult.”

“That’s not been our experience. The staff at Shady Gardens take good care of Mom. But my mother’s quiet as a mouse, and pretty with it. At least when she takes her meds. I’ll tell him how it was for us. All the research I did. But I’ve heard some horror stories too—”

“Thank you. All I ask is that you tell him about your personal experience,” said Elise. “He’s heard enough already about the rumors.”

“Yeah. Right. I’m not going to try to convince him what to do with his mother.”

Elise nodded. “Of course.”

“I mean, I’ve never even met your husband.” Chris put his hand on a shelf next to a box of macaroni and cheese. “This is a sensitive topic and very personal decision.”

“I understand,” said Elise. “I’m only hoping you can help dispel some of his misconceptions.” In a hushed tone, she said, “I . . . I can’t stand living with her anymore.” Elise took a deep breath. “And I don’t know what else to do.” She wiped another tear from her eye with his napkin. “I'll take you to him now, okay?”

“Sure.”

He followed her downstairs. Carlos and Roger sat on a wide leather couch, watching UFC. Elise gestured with her chin to signal Chris to join them, then she retreated silently upstairs without an introduction.

That’s weird.

“Mind if I join you guys?”

Carlos and Roger turned, surprised. They both looked at Chris with tilted heads like curious dogs.

“Of course not, man.” The smaller of the two men spoke with a Scarface accent. He used a sheet of paper towel to wipe orange cheese doodle powder off his fingers. He extended a clean hand to Chris. “Welcome, I'm Carlos, this is Roger, and you're...?" Carlos widened his eyes.

“Chris,” he said and shook their hands.

“Take a seat.” Roger scooted over to give Chris space to sit between them on the couch.

Chris sat. “Thanks.”

“Had enough of that party?” Roger smirked at Chris and nudged him with his elbow.

“It's a nice party,” Chris said. 

“What’s with the hat?” asked Carlos.

“Didn’t want my head to burn.” Chris took off his hat and displayed his gleaming dome.

Carlos and Roger laughed at Chris’s lack of shame.

“Talk about sunburn.” Roger nudged Chris again with his elbow. “You should have seen Carlos when I first met him.”

Carlos rolled his eyes, ate a cheese doodle, then took up and kissed the gold cross hanging from a thick gold chain around his neck. When he let go of the cross, it rested on a clump of hair that protruded from his V-neck silk shirt, its first few buttons unfastened for Guido-effect.

Roger nudged him again. “I was first mate on the Coast Guard cutter that shadowed his raft the day he landed on Miami Beach.”

“Yeah, you looked real tough with your tight uniform and commodore moustache,” Carlos quipped, his accent thicker about the vowels.

“Thank you.” Roger patted his robust belly under his Prada tee shirt. “Back in the day, I was more fit. Roger rested his elbow on his knee and pointed to their host. “Carlos crossed ninety miles of shark infested waters with his mother. After baking for two days in the blazing August sun, he was redder than that Lamborghini parked in his garage.” Roger pointed to a door near the TV. Presumably, it led to the garage.

Roger went on to tell Carlos’s rags to riches attainment of the American dream, starting with his immigration misadventures in the early 1980s, and ending with his acquisition of a small empire of car dealerships in New Jersey.

Carlos frequently interrupted to curse at Roger and correct a few minor details. They had this skit down to a comedy routine.

Chris only had to nod and widen his eyes on occasion. He said, “Wow,” to the time Maria nearly died of dehydration on the raft, and “Oh, my,” to how Carlos rose from a lowly car washer to successful litigant and business magnate. It was in a probate lawsuit Carlos got his first big break. His former employer’s Last Will and Testament disinherited his next-of-kin, and left everything instead to Carlos, his devoted right-hand man. Not your typical rags to riches story.

Roger scrutinized his body language with an intensity that made Chris squirm. Chris controlled himself and wondered if he looked as uncomfortable as he felt. He scrambled to formulate back channel questions that Roger and Carlos never gave him an opportunity to fire, so he swallowed his friendly prompts like unchewed steak, knowing his digestion would later suffer on account of this.

Finally, the UFC co-main event came on and Roger shut his mouth to watch.

Chris, focused on the task at hand, and eager to get it out of the way, said, “I understand your mom lives with you here.”

“That’s right.” Carlos’s attention remained glued to the TV. “This guy’s a bum.” Carlos patted Chris’s knee with his knuckles without looking at him. “I don’t know how the UFC ranking system works. It makes no sense. How they give an unranked guy, who’s never even fought at this weight, a title shot? This fucking guy hasn’t fought in two years.”

“St. Hubert was champion for like five years, and had ten title defenses before he retired.” Chris no longer felt shy. He blinked and looked at the door to the garage. Is it the weed that makes this easier?

“Man’s got a point,” said Roger. He snapped the waistband of his jogging pants.

“Yeah,” said Carlos, “But he walked away and abdicated his title, at the weight class below the one he’s fighting at today. It’s not fair to the guys ranked in the top ten of the middleweight division to give St. Hubert a title shot.”

“It’s all about the draw,” said Roger. “St. Hubert has always been the most popular fighter on the UFC’s roster. They gave him the title shot because more people will buy the pay-per-view.”

“Whatever, man. It’s still bullshit,” said Carlos.

The men grew quiet as the announcer in the flashy sports jacket introduced the fighters.

“You have a really lovely house,” said Chris.

“Thanks, man,” said Carlos.

Roger sniggered.

“Your escape from Cuba with you mother, uh. . .” Chris hesitated. “What did you say her name was?”

“Maria.” Carlos looked at Chris out of the corner of his eye.

“That ordeal must have brought you two very close.”

“That’s another part of the story Roger fucked up. I came first. Mama came a year later.”

“Sounds arduous.”

“Arduous?”

“Like a difficult passage,” Chris rushed to say.

“You have no idea, man.”

“Oh!” Roger shouted.

“Wow!” said Carlos.

“He’s still not moving,” Chris squinted at the TV.

Roger stood up and poured a generous helping of Johnny Walker Blue on spherical ice cubes. “Looks like St. Hubert had no ring rust on him.” Before he put down the bottle, he said, “Chris, you want a drink?”

“No thanks.”

“Tell me about yourself,” Carlos said to Chris. “What do you do for a living?”

“IT, web design, website development, digital marketing, and branding.”

“Do you work for a company or for yourself?” asked Carlos.

“I operate my own business.”

Roger handed a glass of whiskey to Carlos with a wide-eyed and meaningful expression.

Carlos took the glass without looking at Roger. “What’s the difference between web design and website development?”

Roger answered that question. “Web designers use programs like Adobe Photoshop to create a website’s layout and visual elements. Whereas web Developers use HTML, CSS, Javascript or other language to bring life to the design. Does that make sense?” Roger looked to Chris for validation.

Chris puckered his lips but before he could say anything—

“Wow. Roger. That’s really insightful.” Carlos’s face went sour. “Now, would you let the man speak for himself?”

“Yeah, Sure, Sorry, C. I gotcha.” Roger adjusted his genitals through his cashmere jogging pants, then rested an elbow on his knee on the couch next to Chris.

“I don’t know if I can add anything to Roger’s answer.” A bead of sweat ran down Chris’s back.

The hard edges of Carlos’s eyes chased away Roger’s self-satisfied grin.

“Do you do 3D animation and modeling?” asked Roger as if interpreting Carlos’s frown as a cue.

“Sure, that’s actually one of my specialties,” said Chris.

Carlos shook a finger in the air as if granting Roger a reprieve.

“What’s an example of something you’ve recently done for a client?” asked Roger.

“Here, let me show you.” Chris reached for his pocket and realized he didn’t have his phone. It was still in his bag upstairs. Hopefully, Karen’s got it. “Do you have an iPad I can use to show you?”

“Use my MacBook Air.” Roger set up his laptop on the glass coffee table in front of Chris.

“This is a 3D animation for an inside the waistband concealed carry holster design. It’s for a Texas client who—”

“That’s awesome,” said Roger. “Do you have a CCP?”

 

“No. SlimTech is a Texas-based client. Actually, a fifth-generation bootmaker company now looking to break into the firearms accessory market.”

“I like his matter-of-fact style of presentation,” Carlos said to Roger as if Chris wasn’t there. “And how he ignored your stupid question.”

“Thanks,” said Chris, who, turning back to Roger, said, “From my understanding, it’s next to impossible to get a CCP in New Jersey.”

“I got one,” said Roger. “You think you can get me a complimentary holster for my 500 Magnum?”

“What’s wrong with you, man?” asked Carlos.

“What?” Roger shrugged with feigned naiveté.

“How you going to get a concealed carry holster for a five-pound pistol that’s twenty inches long?”

“I’m a big guy,” said Roger. “Besides, Smith and Wesson makes a 500 Magnum snub-nose.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Carlos waived a hand at Roger. “This fucking guy.” Then he focused on Chris. “Listen, Chris. I like what I see.” Carlos flattened his affect and nodded slightly. “And I like doing business with people I like, if you know what I mean.”

Chris nodded.

Carlos went on. “The web designer I use now for my businesses, it’s a big company. I prefer to work with small businesses, and to build close, personal relationships.”

Carlos looked at the ceiling, then turned his head to the stairs.

“Here you guys are.” Elise came down the stairs. “Are you fellas hungry yet?”

“No,” said Carlos.

“Are you going to come out and say hello to our guests?” she persisted.

“We’re discussing business, here, honey.”

“Did Chris tell you about his mother?” Elise stood in front of the TV and put her hands on her hips.

Carlos flared his nostrils at his wife, then turned to Chris with a half-closed, suspicious eye.

Chris smiled at Carlos with all the innocence in the world.

“What about his mother?” Carlos kept his eyes on Chris as he asked this of his wife.

“How he found her a nice assisted living community where she’s pampered and happy.”

“You put your mama in a home?” Carlos looked at Chris as if he caught him taking a shit in the pool.

“It was a touchy situation. A difficult call to make,” said Chris. “But it turned out for the best. That was about a year ago.”

Carlos bit his lip and shook his head.

“My dad died two years ago,” Chris continued.

“I’m sorry,” said Roger.

“Thanks,” said Chris. “He’d been my mother’s primary caretaker.” Chris sighed and ran his hand over his thigh in a vain attempt to straighten out some wrinkles. “After he passed, I took over. We tried to keep her in her house.” Chris looked at Elise. “Someone had told me a change of setting might increase her confusion.”

Carlos nodded vehemently. “See!”

“I work from home most of the time. I could work from her house. Supervise the home health care aides I brought in to take care of her. But she was getting worse.” Chris reached for Roger’s glass of whiskey, but caught himself.

“Change your mind?” asked Roger. “You want I make you one?”

“Just water, please.”

“Sure.” Roger stood from the couch and went to the refrigerator by the bar.

Chris continued. “Trying to wander away. Refusing to take her medication. Forgetting even sometimes who I was.” Chris stifled a tear with a slow blink. “It was a hard call. But for the best, I see now in hindsight.” Chris took a cold bottle of water from Roger. “Thanks.” He looked from Elise, to Roger, to Carlos. “She’s happy at Shady Gardens. They take better care of her there than I could at her house. She’s with other people her age. Plays cards, bingo, walks the gardens. Most important, she's compliant with her meds, and her dementia is much more. . . well, under control. She’s with it enough now to know who I am, who she is, where she is, and to be happy.”

“Wouldn’t you agree, Chris,” said Carlos, “that everyone’s situation is not the same?”

“Of course. Decisions like this always have to be made on a case-by-case basis.”

“Case-by-case. Exactly.” Carlos extended a finger at the ceiling. “What is good for you and your mom may not be good for me and my mama, right?” Carlos’s ‘right’ was nearly shouted.

Chris nodded.

“Carlos!” Maria bursts into the room. “The Revolution is here!” She had a pillowcase with an American Flag design hung over her shoulder. It was stuffed with hard, heavy objects, like a snake that had recently eaten bricks.

“Mama, don’t get excited. What’s in the pillowcase?”

Chris put his hat back on.

“I got the commie’s shoes.” Maria threw her shoulders back and looked at Elise with defiance.

“She’s taken a collection of our guests’ shoes, Carlos.” Elise’s voice had an eerily neutral tone.

“Mama, calm down, please. You know I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” Carlos looked at Elise with venom in his eyes. He took his mother’s hand. Walked her to the couch. “Please sit, Mama.”

Maria sat and appeared calm. She pointed to the handgun displayed on Roger’s laptop. “That’s what I need. A pistola. To blast the pinko commies smoking drugs in the attic. Can you believe it? Right over our cabezas.”

“Mama, I won’t let the commies in our house. I promise. Let’s not talk about shooting people. What will our guests think?” Carlos smiled warmly at his mother. “Let me introduce you to my friend, Chris.”

“You’re not a commie, are you Chris?” Roger nudged Chris with his elbow.

“Not the last time I checked.” Chris sat rigid on the couch.

Maria looked at Chris. Her mouth popped open like a boiled clam. “Dios mio!” She clutched at Carlos’s arm. “It’s him.” She snatched up Chris’s water bottle on the table and threw it at him.

Roger caught the plastic bottle with catlike reflexes.

Chris reacted a full second late. “Thanks.”

“Mama! Stop it. You’re making it impossible. . .” Carlos’s face contorted with sadness and frustration. “You can’t do this.” Carlos clutched his mother’s arm.

Maria pointed at Chris with her free arm and writhed to get out of Carlos’s grasp. “It’s him. This is the commie I caught smoking drugs in the attic, and who knows what else he was doing up there.”

“Mama. Stop it!” Carlos stood by his mother. “Chris has been here with me the whole time.”

“No. Before. Look at this.” Maria reached into the pillowcase at her feet and pulled out Chris’s gray tactical bag.”

Chris’s eyes widened. “How did you get my bag?”

Maria unzipped it. Took out his wallet. Opened to his drivers license. “See, it’s him. Cabeza de huevo. And take a look at this.” She pulled out his sunglasses and tube of Vaseline. “What’s he doing with Vaseline?”

“Mama. Don’t go through the man’s bag. That’s rude.”

“Chris doesn’t mind, right?” Roger said. “Just to humor Maria, I mean. Prove you’re not a drug packing commie, like she fears.”

“Why are you interfering?” asked Elise.

Chris swallowed hard. “Sure.” He put his fist to his chin.

Roger searched the bag. “See. Of course, he knows better than to bring drugs to your house, Maria. For Christ’s sake, his kid goes to the same Catholic school as Isabella.”

Roger handed Chris his bag without opening the secret compartment.

“Thanks,” Chris whispered.

“Yeah, right.” Roger chuckled.

“It doesn’t help to humor her,” said Elise.

“When did you become the expert?” asked Carlos.

“Living here, I did,” Elise’s voice cracked. Tears streamed down her eyes.

Carlos hugged her. “It’s going to be all right, baby.”

“Can’t you see what this is doing to our family?” Elise sobbed.

Maria snorted. “Drama queen, this one.”

“Stop it, Mama!” Carlos turned to Chris. “You can give the name of that place you mentioned to Rog.”

Chris wrinkled his brow.

“Shady Gardens, I got it,” said Roger.

“Come, Mama. I’ll go with you to the attic to check for commies.” Carlos winked at his wife. He took his mother’s elbow and walked her upstairs, the pillowcase in his other arm. “And we can give the capitalists their shoes back.”

Elise followed.

Chris looked at Roger. “The person I deal with at Shady Gardens is Carmela. I have her contact information on my phone.” Chris made to open his bag but froze when he saw Roger’s ironic smile. The lines around his eyes tightened and the corners of his mouth curled up.

“What?”

Roger shook his head and puckered his lips to one side. “I don’t feel right about gaslighting Maria.”

“I don’t understand.”

Roger opened his massive palm, revealing the glass pipe.

Chris looked at it with only a nanosecond to decide.

“Did Elise put you up to this?” asked Roger.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“What do you suggest I tell Carlos?”

Chris met Roger’s eyes. “Tell him to give it a try. See which fits better. Maria in Shady Gardens, or your Magnum 500 in the SlimTech holster I’ll get you.”

All the muscles in Roger’s face relaxed. His frown looked serious. He pointed back and forth between Chris and himself. “Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, Roger.”

Crew Schielke

 

A native of New Jersey, Crew Schielke is a second-generation attorney and brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You can find him in his secret chamber early each morning spinning tales before he heads off to court to fight for his clients and acquire new material for his first calling.

— Sarah Rose Cadorette

“Oh, so NO ONE has ever gotten DRUNK at a WEDDING before?” I asked, flinging my arms out to indicate that I was a very, very big presence.

            The EMT sighed, pushed the stretcher up against a wall, and came around to face me. “Do you know why we picked you up, Sarah? Hmm?” I shook my head defiantly. “You were laughing in the bushes.”

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