I’ve picked a ringtone that reminds me of the metallic bell from when I was a kid. I get up to answer it. Probably a God damned robot.
Ximena is putting dinner on the dining room table; meatloaf, soft green beans with bacon and real mashed potatoes. I love Ximena’s cooking but my guts can’t always take the heat. So we eat American three nights a week. A compromise.
The caller ID reads Hugh Rection. I know who it is without the middle initial. It’s Neil, all breathless on the line. “You aren’t answering my texts.”
“Yeah,” I say. “So?”
“We need to talk,” he says.
“I’m eating dinner. It’s dinnertime.” Neil knows when I eat.
“Give me an hour,” I say and hang up. I’m pissed. I am the one that calls. Not Neil.
Ximena asks who it is, and I say it’s just Neil, who works in the jewelry supply business near the airport I bought ten years ago. I say he’s bugging me about going to a trade show.
Ximena frowns and folds her arms around her midsection shifting her weight on one hip. Even frowning she’s so pretty it makes me ache. Neil used to bug me about the age difference until I joked about punching his lights out if he mentioned it again. Neil has a hard time figuring out when I’m joking.
Ximena rearranges my thinning hair, her fingertips warm and soothing. “I hate when you’re away,” she says. I kiss her hand. I’ve gotten over not deserving her. Life isn’t fair.
Sometimes that works to your advantage.
My cell is out of juice. I plug in the charger and wait for the stupid battery icon to fill up enough for it to work again. I punch in my passcode to reveal Neil’s seven unanswered texts. He’s sent me a map pin which brings up a tiny park a half-mile from the shop.
The other texts are about an unnamed business opportunity.
Neil knows I don’t trust texts.
The evening is cool, the park dim near the bench where a streetlight is out. The houses here are nicely kept with tidy postage stamp sized yards. Neil is chewing on something. He offers me a chunk. We wait for a jet looming in for a landing to pass over us.
“What is that stuff?” I say.
“Turkey jerky. Organic. Sriracha and lime.”
“I got us a job,” he whispers, grinning.
The words send a shiver down my spine. Dear God no. He gives me the pitch, which takes forever, and then the kicker. The size of the prize.
I whistle. I can’t help myself. “Bullshit,” I say. Trying to walk back my whistle.
Another plane roars overhead interrupting our conversation. Three teenagers have slipped through the gate and are horsing around on the swings, too far away to overhear us.
Neil walks me through the plan. Lots and lots of detail. Half of it washes over me, I’ll have to look stuff up. I’m not sure at what point he sells me on it, but he does. Neil is up on the tech. It’s proven useful in the past. But it gives me the willies relying on anything new.
I say I’ll think about it, and he nods and smiles his crooked smile, reading me. He can see I’m in. Neil has nerve damage from a beating he took after 9/11. Poor kid was only in fifth grade. I was surprised there wasn’t much more of that. Tempers were running high. Most people are decent. The world wouldn’t work if they weren’t.
“You can retire,” Neil says.
“You can, too,” I say.
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe if you let me pull the trigger, I will.”
That isn’t going to happen, but I don’t say that. I try his turkey jerky. Edible, but after swallowing the aftertaste burns and my mouth fills with foul tasting saliva. My stomach lurches. I get up and spit in the trashcan next to the bench.
“Sorry,” Neil says.
“Not your fault,” I say.
Neil starts chattering about his new girlfriend and her many personal problems and I tune out. This one sounds like a real nightmare. Her stepbrothers have it out for him, he says. He thinks they’re racists. Then Neil starts talking about doing a hit for them, to try to get in with them.
I raise my right hand to cut him off. He shuts up.
“Don’t.” I say.
“Don’t mix work and family.”