Sterling knocked on the door of his father's room at the nursing home and stuck his head in far enough to see that the old man was on the toilet, which meant he’d likely be there awhile. Sterling never wanted to be old.
The expected wait further darkened a sour mood spun from a bad day in a crappier month and an even more wretched year. Doom had been tumbling down the slope of Sterling's life like boulders from a sadistic landslide.
The year began with the implosion of his 22-year marriage. A month after Pam informed him they were done, the company he had worked for since college was sold and his job eliminated.
He had nearly lost contact with his daughters. He tried not to blame them. Laura was in college three states away. Sandra was finishing high school. They were busy. But he also knew his connection to them had long been tenuous. They had always gone to Pam for anything of importance. They rarely talked on the phone. Sterling tried texting them at one point, but that proved awkward, too.
Pam and the lawyers hired by her wealthy father pitched a shutout in Domestic Relations Court. Sterling had no money for a lawyer, which gave the judge carte blanche to approve all of Pam's requests and ignore all of his. The deal left him broke. The support enforcement agency automatically deducted parental and spousal support from Sterling's checks, which left his net worth at whatever sat unencumbered in his bank account.
Sterling had never had to worry much about money. He made enough so that he and Pam and the kids lived comfortably and did not lack for anything they needed. His half of the proceeds from the sale of the house and their joint savings house had gone straight into a fund to cover the girls’ college costs.
Pam would be getting married to a doctor on a beach in Antigua Christmas Day. The girls would be there. She had moved in his stately home in Shaker Heights before the divorced had been finalized. She paid for nothing, wanted for nothing. Sterling thought of the support checks he received from her as her mad money.
They were on their way home from a New Year's Eve party when Pam told him she wanted a divorce.
“There’s nothing left between us,” she said.
She swore to Sterling that she didn't date him until after she and Sterling had separated. He did not believe her. He'd long had an uneasy sense ofsomething hidden in the recesses of what he now knew was a marriage in a state of collapse. He couldn't not believe he had been that dense that he had not recognized what was happening.
Sterling found it particularly galling that Laura and Sandra liked the guy. He had that big impressive house, a cottage by the lake, cool toys and young daughters whom the girls had embraced as their new little sisters. The jealousy gnawing at Sterling’s psyche could not be sated. He thought of himself as a ragged panhandler ambling by the gleaming front window of a posh restaurant only to see his ex-wife and daughters supping joyfully inside with strangers.
After the separation and the loss of his job, Sterling survived for a few months on unemployment before a golfing buddy found him a job managing a luxury rental car agency near a tony shopping mall. The wealthy people who came in to rent Jaguars and BMWs and Mercedes Benzes irritated Sterling. It bothered him even more when people who clearly could not afford to buy these cars came in to rent them.
"Just a minute,” his father croaked from the bathroom.
Sterling did not bother hiding e his annoyance. He took a phone out of his suit jacket and absent-mindedly checked it for e-mails, texts and tweets he knew he had not received. Sterling had somehow lost nearly all vital connections with his former life. His new one was spent on an island free of something he once blithely took for granted – love.
As he stood waiting for his father, he focused momentarily on the collage of photographs hanging from the door of a frail, shrunken woman who lived in the next room. Most of the photographs were recent. An older studio shot dominated the center of the collage. In the corner was a black and white snapshot of the woman in a bathing suit, in profile, kneeling in the sand.
Nice tits, Sterling thought. When he realized he was smiling he stopped.
Sterling rarely smiled now. He forced himself to give customers a “thank you for doing business with us smile” as they collected their keys and paperwork but rarely meant it.
An unbearable stench roiled the air. Sterling buried his face into his lapel. The light above his father's doorway popped on, a signal to a nurse’s aide that he needed his ass wiped and helped off the toilet. Sterling decided to flee.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I’ve got to go. I’m late for a meeting.”
“I'm done now, Sterling.”
“I know, Dad. But I gotta go. I’m sorry. I’ll come by and see you tomorrow.”
“All right, son. I'm sorry.”
Sterling closed his eyes and sighed. Nettlesome guilt stung without mercy.
“It's okay. You didn't do anything, Dad. It’s my fault. I'll see you tomorrow.”
Sterling passed the nurse's aide, Barbara Lee, as she headed toward his father's room. He picked up a $1 fast-food sandwich for his supper on the way home. It was about all he could afford. He had $11.47 in his pocket that needed to last until the end of the week. He had maxed out his credit cards paying off the orthodontist. He was a friend of his and Pam's whose office manager had threatened to put them into collection if the bill wasn't paid in full within 30 days. The divorce settlement put that responsibility on Sterling as well.
One hand on the steering wheel, Sterling bit into the sandwich, examined it with a frown and tossed it back into the bag. It tasted awful, as if the smell from his father's room had embedded itself in his taste buds. He wished he had a cigarette. He’d quit four years ago to please Pam, who had nagged him incessantly. He wished he had ignored her. He veered off the road and pulled into a gas station, where he used most of his remaining cash to buy a pack of Salems and a cheap plastic lighter.
He got back in his car, unrolled the window and, with shaking hands, opened the pack and extracted a cigarette. He stuck it between his lips, savoring the taste of the filter. He steadied his right hand and lighted the cigarette. He took a few cautious drags before inhaling, filling his lungs with mentholated smoke and exhaling it in a steady, satisfying stream.
Sterling began to feel light-headed and then felt his chest tighten and lungs sting. He wondered if he was having a heart attack. He tossed he cigarette out the window, opened the car door and stumbled out. He leaned over, hands on knees and slowly breathed in and out, begging for fresh air to cleanse his lungs.
He stood up, reached into the car and grabbed the cigarettes and lighter off the console. He wound up and threw the lighter and then the cigarette pack as far as he could into a weedy field behind the gas station.
“Fuck you,” he screamed into the cold night, prompting a man pumping gas to turn and look at him.
“What'd you say?” the man asked, an angry expression on his face.
Embarrassed, Sterling did not look over. He got back in his car and rolled up the window. He sat contemplating what had just happened, leaned his forehead against the steering wheel and began to sob, his chest heaving. Despair overwhelmed him. Two teen-age boys sniggered as they walked by his car.
“Sucks to be him,” one of the teens said. His buddy cackled in delight.
Sterling composed himself and drove to his apartment complex, a series of a dozen low-slung, dark red brick buildings called Lakeshore Gardens. There were no gardens to be found, just sickly untended rose bushes planted in front of each building that rattled in the icy wind blowing off the lake. Sterling hated the place. Most of his neighbors, Sterling concluded, were elderly people clinging desperately to their independence. Sterling had begun to feel as if he were dying alongside them.
His apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a living room with a view of the front of an identical building, a tiny kitchen and bathroom. His only furniture was a mattress of uncertain provenance on the bedroom floor and a heavy, wooden chaise lounge that had sat on the deck of his former home for too many winters, the once beige canvas cushion now a dingy and mottled brown.
Sterling's suits and dress shirts hung in a neat row in the bedroom closet. A few dirty clothes sat in a laundry basket. Sterling made it a point to do laundry several times a week, even if it was only a half load. Doing laundry somehow gave his life some purpose. Clothes that did not require hangars were neatly folded and placed in two other baskets.
The floors were tile and cold even in summer. Rugs were another item Sterling could not afford. The only visitor he had ever had was Sandra, who stopped once shortly after he moved in. She had never bothered to return, which Sterling figured was just as well. The condition of his life had become an embarrassment.
After arranging his wallet and car keys on the kitchen counter, Sterling poured a healthy amount Ancient Age into a jelly glass featuring one of the Teen-Aged Ninja Turtles. If he had bothered to look, he would have learned it was the fun-loving Michaelangelo. Sterling washed down his nightly Xanax with the cheap bourbon..
He took off his jacket and pants and wondered if he could get one more day out of the suit before it needed dry cleaned. He sniffed the seat of the suit pants and decided that, like everything else in his life, it smelled like shit. He stuffed it into an already full dry cleaning bag that he would drop off tomorrow. He wouldn't have the cash to get his laundry out of hock for another week.
Sterling summoned the energy to take a shower hoping it might cleanse his malodorous soul. He ran the water as hot as he could stand it and let the spray beat against him. He used copious amounts of body wash to create a luxurious froth of soapy foam. He thought for a moment about masturbating but lacked the energy or imagination to conjure any images stimulating or otherwise. He rinsed one last time, dried himself off and crawled into bed. He read a few pages of some acclaimed but boring novel he would never finish and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Daylight poured through the crooked slats of the cheap bedroom window blinds. Sterling pulled the covers over his head in a futile attempt to block the daylight and spoon with the dark, his new lost love. The coming day held no interest. Yet he knew he had to move. He had to be at the agency two hours early to supervise the monthly inventory. Rent A Ridiculously Expensive Foreign or Domestic Car's corporate headquarters insisted it receive an extensive inventory each month of what each store did or did not possess. The report had to be e-mailed as a PDF to St. Louis by the close of business. Managers had been fired for failing to comply with this directive.
Sterling pulled down the covers and managed to sit up. He thought again of the incident at the gas station and sighed. He found no humor in it. It had cost him $7 and he wondered how he’d eat the rest of the week. He already had been stealing small amounts of gas from the pump at the rental agency to make sure he could get back and forth to work.
He felt famished. He had not eaten since a late lunch the previous day. But his breakfast choices verged on non-existent. There was a box of cereal, but it contained only crumbs. He could not explain why he had failed to throw out the box. Even if there had been cereal, he had no milk, which meant he'd have to drink his instant coffee black. At least there would be a pot of brewed coffee waiting for him at work.
Breakfast, Sterling concluded, would have to be two slices of slightly stale white bread crisped in the 22-year-old toaster he and Pam had received as a wedding present. There was no butter or other condiments save a few packets of soy sauce and catsup in a kitchen drawer.
Some strawberry jam would be nice, Sterling decided. Jam like his mother once made.
Alice’s miserly habits largely made life miserable but produced a few dividends, including her canning of fruits and vegetables. She filled the house with the acrid smell of stewing tomatoes on later summer days when farmers practically gave away the tomatoes. That was followed by the vinegary smells from her sweet-and-sour pickle chips and dill spears.
But late spring was best. It brought the promise of summer and a burst of strawberries. With that ripening came the creation of luscious jam that would bless toast and sandwiches on cold winter mornings with sugary sweetness.
Sterling closed his eyes and searched for a rare chip of colorful stone hiding in the gray, lifeless gravel that now paved his life.
A warm morning in early June. Sterling is six years old and won't start first grade until fall. His siblings' are still in school for another week. Alice drives them to Ed Palmer's berry farm the day the fields open for picking. Mother and son pluck quart after quart of large, luscious berries from the thick, well-tended rows. Sterling eats his share, the evidence of his thievery smeared across his pale face. Alice laughs, wets her thumb and rubs it off.
Sterling realized that something rare happened that day, why that fragment of memory emerged: An incessantly forlorn woman felt and showed something that could be called happiness.
They fill four flats with quart baskets piled high. Cheapskate Ed Palmer looks at the flats with a disapproving sneer, but says nothing. Alice has occasionally done housework for his wife. Sterling has heard Alice mutter “son of a bitch” enough times when talking about Ed to know it meant something bad.
They drive home with the berries filling the back seat, Sterling sit in front unbuckled. No one wore seat belts then. Sterling stands on a dining room chair in front of the kitchen sink and helps his mother rinse the berries. She gives him a butter knife and asks him to slice off the green tops. He shivers. Her warmth feels strange and wonderful. He can't remember her asking instead of ordering him to do something.
Sterling takes the work seriously. He tries hard to keep pace. But his fingers are small and the task hard. Alice doesn’t criticize and instead joins in the shearing of the berries. She hums something unrecognizable and off-key.
They break for lunch: Campbell's vegetarian vegetable soup and bologna sandwiches smeared with Miracle Whip. Alice and Sterling eat together at the dining room table. That’s different, too. He usually eats his lunch alone while his mother cleans or visits with a neighbor.
After the berries are sliced and in the pot, Alice adds water, pectin and several pounds of white sugar and sets the mixture to boil. Once the jam has set, she uses a ladle to fill the jars through a wide-mouthed funnel. The jars are sealed and placed in large pot of boiling water to preserve them for the months ahead.
When the jam making is done, Alice presents a small surprise. She has thawed two loaves of frozen bread dough that had been rising in bread pans. She lights the oven with a match and has the bread baking in a few minutes.
“Do you want to play War?” Alice asks.
Sterling nods. His mother has never asked him to play a game before. He guesses War is the only card game she knows. Sterling and his father have been playing War and Rummy and Casino for more than a year now. It’s his father’s job to put him to bed and to read to him the books magically borrowed from Perry’s small, crowded library.
The odor of baking bread perfumes the house in wonderful harmony with the sweet scent of the strawberries. His mother wins three games of War in a row, which made her giggle in delight. Her laughter pleases Sterling greatly.
The wind-up kitchen timer rings. Sterling stands behind his mother as she opens the oven door to reveal two plump and brown-crusted loaves. She shakes one of the loaves onto a wire rack to cool and drops the second on a cutting board. Using a long serrated knife, she carefully cuts two thick and steaming slices from the ends of the loaf and lathers butter and jam into them, forming deliriously wonderful pockets of deliciousness.
They eat these heavenly heels of bread and smile conspiratorily. Could anything ever taste so good?
Sterling, sitting alone in his barren bedroom, sadly lost his grasp and the fragment tumbled away. If anything else of significance happened that day, Sterling could not recall. He imagined that his brothers and sisters came home from school, turning him once again into the forgotten runt of the litter. And Alice once again became Alice, harsh, critical and cold.
Sterling stood up, pulled on a pair of gym shorts and walked to the kitchen. Dry toast and a new day demanded his attention. There was an inventory to be made, things to count.