Two of the tellers were out sick, and Clark was working the drive thru by himself. It was the last day of the month, and busy—deposits, withdrawals, transfers—stuff anyone could do online and save a trip, yet all these people preferred the overworked teller to do it. The compressed air hum of thick plastic carriers being sucked through the tube drowned out the voices coming through the speaker. So many numbers, buttons. Keyboard, cash machine, microphone. “What was that? Pardon me? Sure, I can write down your balance and send it through the tube. I’ll just need some ID.”
Neil, the branch manager, came in fifteen minutes late and walked straight back to his office without making eye contact with anyone. The tellers and service reps all looked at each other. No one was happy.
At about nine-fifty the line died down, and Clark finally got a moment to spare. He checked his phone and saw seven missed texts from Jessica, all related to the fight they’d had the night before. A big fight that had not ended in sex. Her final text said, “Maybe if you realized once in a while that Im trying to accomplish something too. And what Im trying to accomplish might actually HAPPEN.” This was a direct strike at the heart, placing Clark’s ambition to be a professional musician against her own ambition to be a lawyer, as if the two were even remotely similar. She knew better than that, attacking him on the one thing he cared about. That was it. It was over. As far as he was concerned, it was over. All the fights, all the bickering, back-and-forth, and this was how it ended, a stupid text message on a Thursday morning. In the two years they had been together, she had never once criticized his dream to be a musician. That dream was sacred, and her stomping on it officially ended it.
“Fine,” he texted back. He would have to find a new place to live. The apartment was hers. He knew some cheap places in Harahan.
“I didnt mean it like that,” she immediately responded, clearly sensing the depth of his single word message.
“Hey, Clark, come here a second,” Neil called, leaning out the doorway of his office. Clark thought he might get a lecture on texting. Even though he and Neil were kind of buddies—they’d get Happy Hour drinks after work a couple times a month—Neil occasionally liked to show he was still boss.
Clark locked his computer and walked over, adrenaline raging through his body. Everything was clear, every second seemed perfectly spaced out. Jessica was toast.
Neil told Clark to close the door. Neil was a tall, slim guy who went to the gym most days. He had a strong jaw and was balding so he kept his head shaved close at all times. He was 36, a decade older than Clark, but often would talk about things he did in college, which made him seem younger. Though Clark liked him okay, everyone knew Neil was a bad manager—always coming in late, showing little interest in his employees, letting his moods rule the branch—fortunately for him his father was Vice Chair on the Board of Directors for the Credit Union. If Neil tried to reprimand him for texting today, Clark wasn’t sure he’d be able to hold back, not in this moment.
“You alright?” Neil asked. “You look…mad.”
“Okay. Hey, listen. I need you to do me a favor. A huge favor,” Neil said.
Neil looked past Clark at the doorway of his office. “It’s too confusing to explain right now, but I need your help with something. It’s…it’s fucked up. I’ll tell you later.”
Clark went back to his station, dealt with customers, all the while thinking about Jessica, wondering why she had to be the way she was. They had been together two years, always promising each other they would work on the relationship, but the same problems kept coming up. She had little to no interest in his music. She was good at spreadsheets and organization, and she could probably help with the logistical side of starting a label, but she showed no interest. She let herself be absorbed totally in law school. Last night she had run the blender even after Clark specifically told her that he was going to be recording a song in their bedroom. The blender fucked up his recording.
Clark’s band had been called Strange Motion and had toured all over the Southeast. The reason he now lived in New Orleans and not Jackson, was because of music. Maybe the city was a false idol, but still it was far better than Jackson. Over the course of their five year existence, the band had sold over four hundred CD’s. Clark’s old bass player, Bradley, had once said that they were only 999,600 short of going platinum.
It wasn’t until after lunch that Neil called him back into the office. He was standing, rattling the keys in his pocket. “Okay,” Neil said. “I need a big favor. I need you to come with me somewhere. It’s serious though.”
They walked through lobby and the break room and outside, stepping on the grass of the building’s big back lawn. Once they got in the car, the AC blowing hot air, Neil said, “So what’s your story, man? You look pissed.”
“It’s just Jessica. Giving me shit.”
Neil nodded and laughed. “Oh. Oh. I bet it’s nothing like what I got. I bet it’s not even close.”
Neil backed out of the parking space and quickly peeled out onto Veterans Boulevard. Clark looked at him, waiting. He hated this, being the boss’s lackey.
“So here it is,” Neil said, lighting a cigarette while steering with his thigh and then cracking his window. “We’re going to bust Michelle. We’re going to bust her ass cold. I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure she’s cheating on me right this minute, as we speak.” He looked at his watch even though the digital time was on the dash. “It’s one-fifteen. She’s at her mom house.”
“She’s cheating on you at her mom’s house?”
“Yeah, well, her mom lives in Lafayette with Michelle’s sister, but she still owns the house. We’re supposed to fix it up to help her sell it, right? But Michelle’s going over there all the time, right? I’m suspicious. So I break into her email—all kinds of emails, going back months. I know who the guy is. He’s there right now.”
Neil nodded and slapped Clark’s arm with the back of his hand. “So what we’re going to do is, I’ll knock on the front door, and you’re going to stand around back, right? And you’ll see if he comes out the back door. If he doesn’t come out that means he’s hiding in the house and I can get my hands on him. No accusing and denying, just bust her ass cold.”
“What are you going to do to the guy?”
“I don’t know. Beat his ass. Look, one of the emails he wrote to her—I read all of them—one of them he wrote said, ‘Next time you can elevate yourself again.’ What the fuck does that mean? Elevate yourself? She’s got some new positions for him or something? They probably got one of those sex swings hanging from the ceiling. You think they’re snorting Adderalls or something?”
“Could be,” Clark said and looked ahead at the road. They went down Airline and took a right onto Dickory. Neil punched the stereo power and hit the scan on his radio. It stopped on a familiar song.
“You like this stuff? John Mayer?” Neil said.
“Not at all.”
“I like it all right. It’s not bad.”
Neil was talking about popular music while his wife was elevating herself with some guy, but maybe his nonchalance was not so strange. Because Neil had his own stuff on the side. He was always talking about hooking up, always sizing up the new girl tellers, and he had told Clark of one recent occasion where he banged a girl on a vacation cruise during a friend’s bachelor party. He even gave Clark the logistics of positioning on the cramped quarters of a ship.
The car slowed as they turned onto Farrier Avenue, and Neil pointed at the light blue house. Neil rolled the car slowly and nodded toward a red Malibu that was parked on the other side of the street. “That’s probably his car.”
Neil braked on the street in front of the next-door neighbor’s house. “Don’t slam the door.”
Neil led the way through the overgrown yard to the back of the house, past the white Camry in the carport. Neil took a step into the backyard to get a look at the door. He then handed Clark his cell phone and whispered, “Get a picture if he comes out.” He patted Clark once on the shoulder and jogged back around front.
It was an old house, raised off the ground with casement windows, the blinds closed on each of them. Up against the house was a metal rack where a few pieces of firewood sat. Fires could be useful about ten days out of the year in New Orleans.
It was mostly quiet out other than the high buzz of crickets, and somewhere in the distance a hammer was pounding. Sweat had collected on Clark’s hairline, and he wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
Clark heard Neil knock loudly, then the muffled ring of the doorbell through the wall. Neil’s voice called out, “Michelle, it’s your husband.” Neil knocked again, the knocks getting louder. Clark thought about Jessica, and how did he know what she was doing in her spare time? A bead of sweat dripped down his cheek, tickling his face, and he wiped it hard.
A moment later the blinds inside the window silently rose up, one quick tug, and the casement window opened slowly, swinging outward. A bare foot appeared on the ledge. Neil was right; there was a guy. Clark walked toward the window, he couldn’t help it. One leg came out, then another, bare feet and khaki pants, the guy sitting on the window ledge but leaning back.
Clark could reach out and slap the guy’s knee if he wanted. And then it occurred to him—they were busting this guy out of the blue. Clark just standing there with his only weapon a cell phone. What if the guy lashed out, chose fight instead of flight? Clark dropped the phone and leaned down, grabbed a solid block of oak firewood. And the guy, not realizing he was being watched, jumped down to the flower bed soundlessly, like this getaway was no inconvenience at all. He was muscular, about Clark’s height. He had on a white polo shirt, untucked, and was holding his socks and shoes in one hand. He even had a smile on his face, as if he was remembering a joke. This was all just a joke. Everything is a joke. The sky’s blue, that’s a joke. It’s hot as hell outside, that’s a joke.
Then the guy turned, faced Clark head-on. He froze, still smirking. They locked eyes and Clark swung the firewood like a baseball bat. The wood hit with a hard thud, clean on the left temple. The guy’s head snapped sideways, and the rest of the body went limp and collapsed to the ground in one simple motion. He lay there, half in the flower bed, half out, looking like a dead leaf on the ground. Clark held on to the firewood with both hands, staring at the motionless body. The knocking had ceased. All was quiet now.
Seconds passed, maybe a minute, and when Clark looked up she was there in the window, the wife. For all he knew she saw the whole thing. She looked at the body and looked at Clark and looked at the body again. She was kind of pretty, especially with the shocked look on her face. She had dark brown hair in a ponytail and red lipstick, and there were spots of mascara smeared on the corners of her eyes. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. No sound anywhere, not until Neil’s voice rang out behind her. He said loudly, “What’re you doing, honey? Why’s the window open, honey?”
“Who’s this?” Neil said. Clark finally dropped the firewood on the ground.
“What’re you…what happened?” she said.
Neil stuck his head out the window too, his tie hanging down over the ledge. “Who’s this? Who’s this guy on the ground?” They were both looking out the window, side by side, their heads together like a loving couple.
“Call the police. Hurry,” she yelled, pointing at Clark, but she wasn’t making a move to do it herself. For some reason she wanted Neil to call.
“That’s my employee. His name’s Clark. What happened, Clark?”
“I don’t know, man.” Clark ran his hands through his hair and then put them on his waist. He squinted in the bright sun.
Neil slapped his hand on the window ledge. “All right, listen. Who’s this on the ground?”
Michelle looked at Neil, her head inches away from his, and didn’t answer.
“So this guy dropped by for tea? That what you’re telling me?”
“You’re so innocent,” Michelle said, matching his volume.
The guy moved. First it was just a leg. He took in a heavy breath and turned his head slightly, faced upward, and opened one eye, a slit in the sunshine.
“I’m taking him to the hospital,” she said. She left the window and Neil looked at Clark, shaking his head. “What happened?” he said. The guy groaned through his teeth and touched his head. Michelle came running around the corner of the house, knelt down by the body, and she held up fingers in front of the guy’s face. “How many?”
He bent his other leg and put a hand over his eyes to block the sun.
“Is he bleeding?” Clark said.
“Oh my God, you’re in an ant bed,” she said. She tried to get him to sit up, but the guy just groaned.
“Just roll over so I can get the goddamn ants.” She turned and looked up at Clark, who still hadn’t moved. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re gonna burn.”
“Bullshit,” Neil said from the window, but she wasn’t paying any attention.
She finally got the guy to sit up, his eyes half open, and she slapped ants away from his shirt and his neck and his head. She reached up under his arm and Clark stepped over to get the other arm.
“Get away from him!” she yelled. But Clark did it anyway, helped the guy up, unsteady.
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” she said. Then to Clark she said, “And you’ll pay. That’s attempted murder, you sick fuck.”
She had an arm around the guy’s waist and walked him toward the white Camry. She opened the passenger door and guided him in. Clark picked up the guy’s shoes and socks and put them on the hood of her car.
On the drive back to work there was no music. Neil kept taking deep breaths. “She thinks I don’t know how her mind works. She never gave me credit for that.”
Clark didn’t reply.
“Goddamn, man. Is she serious? And what the hell were you doing, anyway? Did he get in your face or something? I didn’t ask you to crack anybody’s skull.”
“I know, man. Oh, Jesus.”
“You saw her face? All that fucking makeup caked on. I swear to God. Does she know how a man gets payback for this? This is when a man finds his woman sleeping and she doesn’t wake up. It happens. You can’t go a week without seeing something like that on the news. That’s what all the old Blues songs are about, right? ‘Hey Joe.’”
“Yeah,” Clark said, without considering the question. He Finds You Sleeping and You Don’t Wake Up Blues.
They pulled up to a red light. “So what the fuck happened? He said something and you clocked him with a block of wood?”
“No, he didn’t say anything.”
“So you just hit him?”
They passed a new restaurant Clark had wanted to try with Jessica, but now restaurants didn’t matter. He was feeling for the lever to lean the seat back but couldn’t find it with his hand. “What?” Clark asked.
“Was it like in slow motion?”
“No, it was in fast motion.”
Neil looked at the road with both hands on the wheel. Clark gave up on the seat lever and looked in the side rearview mirror. He couldn’t look at anything for more than half a second. Everything was farther away than it appeared.
Neil veered into the turn lane at the intersection by the Credit Union. “All right, go home,” Neil said.
“What if he died on the way to the hospital? What if something popped in his head and he died? That can happen. It happens.”
“He didn’t die. People like that don’t die. He had a concussion.”
“What’s the guy’s name?” Clark said, wiping his face with both hands.
“His name’s Anthony something. She won’t even come home tonight. I wouldn’t if I was her. That’s it,” Neil said.
“What’s his last name?”
“She threatens divorce five days a week so now I’ll give it to her. She can listen to her Catholic mom cry about it. Hey, you got my cell phone?”
Clark felt his pockets and shook his head. “It’s in the backyard.”
Neil breathed out heavily and pushed the button to unlock the doors. “Okay, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of your drawer.”
In his empty apartment Clark sat on the couch. He turned the TV on and then turned it back off. He lay down on the couch without taking off his shoes.
Would a hospital be able to tell him how many Anthony’s were there so he could narrow it down? No, there were privacy issues, right? Maybe he could just walk the halls until he found the guy, to see if he was alive.
It was Jessica’s late day—her night class didn’t end until eight—so she was not home at six-fifteen when Clark left for his gig at JJ Lagers. It was a restaurant and bar in Metairie, and the stage was basically a black wooden box with a stool on it. He could hardly play tonight, hardly move his fingers. He didn’t feel like singing so he played instrumental stuff, just slowly strumming major-seven chords up and down the neck, like he was practicing. Tonight he felt so limited, felt like the guitar was a dumb instrument. An insufficient instrument.
He drank two free beers which didn’t loosen him at all. A lady sitting at a table near the stage turned around and requested “anything by Van Morrison.” Clark said he didn’t know any Van Morrison, and the lady said, “You played some last week.” He could only shake his head, pretend he was someone else.
He left JJ Lagers with the intention of going to the hospital, finding Anthony whoever, but then he didn’t know which hospital to try first, and his motivation quickly died. Instead he drove down Clearview, skipped the turn for his apartment, and kept driving. He drove to the Credit Union, just because it was familiar, and parked in the big lot around back. The building was dark other than a few dim safety lights in the lobby windows. His was the only car on the long row of empty parking spaces. He sat there watching the slow, meaningless night. Occasionally a car would pass through the drive through ATM. At 9:57 his cell phone rang—it was Jessica and he didn’t answer.
If Anthony died it was manslaughter, if he lived it was assault—that was Clark’s best guess. He turned the key one click to power the battery and hit the stereo button. He scanned to the classic rock station. “More Than a Feeling” was playing.
Clark thought about music. All his guitar playing, guitar magazines, trying to write songs, ever since he was what, thirteen? He never cared about school or sports, music was the only thing. But now—with this dusty dashboard and this cup holder and this car radio playing three decade-old songs on this clouded night when you couldn’t see a single star—it was all so ridiculous. It’s not going to happen. It was never going to happen. The false images of his future sped at him one after another and died like gods. It was all too fast. He tried to slow himself down, all his thoughts, but he couldn’t.
Music. Do people even care about music? No, they never did. They never cared about music or anything else. They’re just like me, Clark thought, they use music to elevate themselves. Just like they use everything else to elevate themselves. People, once they secure food and shelter, focus on elevating themselves. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? People want money and power to elevate themselves, but if they can’t use that, they use something like music. Or sex. Why stop there? People use their religion or their atheism to elevate themselves, and philosophy and politics can elevate you too. People use anything and everything to elevate themselves, whatever advantage they can gain. Their education, their struggles. The elevated people wave their fingers at everyone else. It is your right to wave your finger once you are elevated. Even when people help others they are simply elevating themselves. Yes, there are true moments when you forget yourself, but where do those moments go once they’ve passed? The good moments suffocate and die. People only care about one thing—elevating themselves. Isn’t this true?
And then what? And then one day Death comes. He comes into the flimsy structure you call a life and he points his crooked finger at you. He finds you sleeping and you don’t wake up.
Clark felt like he had grasped something true about life and, for a moment, it seemed a good idea to turn himself in, to admit publicly the violence he had performed. To de-elevate himself by showing how low he really was. That’s where the truth lies, in de-elevation. But the moment passed and Clark drove to his apartment.
“Gig went a little late?” Jessica said when Clark walked in. She was at the kitchen table with her laptop open and books and papers and note cards strewn about. Her hair was in a pony tail.
“Encore, encore,” she said without looking away from her laptop screen.
“Yep, you got it.”
She stopped typing and looked him over. “Where’s your guitar?”
“In the car.” Clark walked past her to the fridge and opened it. Skim milk, block of cheese. He closed the door.
“What’s wrong?” she said, turning around in her seat to look at him. “Are we still fighting? No? Come on, Clark-after-dark. What’s the story?”
Clark stood in the middle of the kitchen. “Why’re you in such a good mood?”
“I got an A in Torts. Seriously, what’s going on? You look like death.”
Clark didn’t answer. He walked into the bedroom and sat on the corner of the bed and looked at the framed pictures on the dresser. One picture was of Strange Motion playing a gig in Athens, Georgia. In the picture he was looking down at his guitar, in the middle of something that had mattered. Jessica walked in. She was wearing blue pajama pants and a big white t-shirt that advertised Sea World.
Clark told her. She sat down on the bed as he was talking, as he was trying to get the story out. She stared stone-faced, listening. He went over the moment of impact again and again—the way the head snapped, the body going limp like a corpse.
“He was right there and I swung.”
She said, very calmly, “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. I just got sick of it. That guy, climbing through the fucking window. He had this look on his face. It just…what if he’s dead?”
“He’s not dead if he got up and walked off.”
“He wasn’t walking under his own power. I don’t know why I did it.”
“It was a momentary lapse. You took it personally, you were defending your friend,” she said. She put one leg up on the bed and turned more facing him.
“If they filed charges would the cops be here by now?”
“Not if they didn’t know your name. Well, maybe. But there’s no way he filed charges. I bet you he didn’t.” Jessica continued to reassure him.
He took a long shower and when he got out he saw that Jessica had gone down the three flights to get the guitar from his car. “I don’t want it to get stolen,” she said.
Clark did not sleep well.
At 7:48 am, Clark sat at his teller station looking out the window at the empty grass lot next to the Credit Union. No cops were waiting in the parking lot this morning. Soon his coworkers showed up, slouching in one at a time.
At eight twenty-five Neil came in, wearing a tie but no sport coat, and walked directly into his office. He sat at his desk and started eating a cereal bar, watching his computer screen. Clark tried not to look at him, tried to believe everything was over and forgotten. Customers drove through making their requests and waiting while Clark and Paula performed the transactions. When Clark wasn’t with a customer the minutes passed slowly on his computer clock.
A sudden noise shocked Clark out of himself, and for a split second it seemed like they were here now, here for his soul, and things were never going to be the same. But it was only the fire alarm. Clark locked his drawer and followed the line of people out of the teller station. It was a drill.
Outside everyone was gathering, people from all departments. The whole building housed over one hundred employees, and they were moving slowly, huddling in clusters on the large back lawn and in the parking lot. Clark walked up to Neil who was standing by himself on the grass, typing into his cell phone.
“Thanks for letting me go home yesterday.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
Clark nodded and Neil put his phone in his pocket. “Hey look,” Clark said, looking behind him to see if anyone was nearby. And there was a big bird circling overhead, a hawk or something, and some people were pointing at it. “So what’s the deal with everything? With Michelle?”
Neil rolled his head around like his neck was stiff. He didn’t look like he slept too well either. “Michelle? Shit, I don’t know. She actually came home last night, if you can believe that.” Neil spoke calmly, like the whole incident hardly concerned him.
“Really? What about the guy? Anthony or whatever?”
“Anthony? Oh, he’s dead. Poor fucker.” Neil shook his head slowly and looked at the ground as if paying his respects.
Clark tried to think. “Dead?”
“Oh yeah, his head blew up in his sleep. Burial’s at three. Jesus, man, I’m kidding. He’s probably at home. Guy’s married with four kids or something.” Neil took his phone out of his pocket and glanced at it.
“Something like that. He wouldn’t let Michelle take him to the hospital. I’d love to hear the excuse he told his wife about the hump on his head.”
“He was okay? He went home?”
“Yeah, yeah. She took him home.”
“That guy won’t be jumping out a window anytime soon. You clocked him good. He was out like a light.” Neil said this last statement without looking at Clark—he was looking at the building, at the warning light that was still flashing.
Clark looked up at the hawk, which came to a halt on a pine branch high above. “So she came home? Y’all are going to work it out?”
“I don’t know what we’re going to do.” He was about to say something else when the warning light stopped flashing.
Neil walked quickly toward the building—Clark following behind—and looked back at the crowd of employees, most still chatting, not yet realizing the drill was over. From here Clark could see the line at the drive-through backing up. The customers would not be happy.
“Hey everybody. Hey.” Neil put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. “Back to work, please.”
Clark watched them. The employees started making their way toward the doors. Some walked on the sidewalk and some on the lawn. They walked slowly, the hot sun glaring down. Drills were that way—just when you got used to being outside, just when you found something worth your attention—it was time to go back in.
Andrew Rhodes is a fiction writer in Mississippi. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in publications such as The Laurel Review, Gravel, upstreet, Crime Factory, and Star 82 Review.