Crossing Jordan

an excerpt

Chapter One


Thank God it was Friday. It was one the few things that kept me from losing it when John Atkins, sales manager of Everest Enterprises, leaned over my desk, fixed me with one of his piercing glares and blasted his dragon breath right in my face.

"Can you give me one reason why Bart Johnson's advertising department was blowing up my phone first thing this morning about the designs you were supposed to have to them yesterday? Yesterday, O'Neal. By five pm, he said! If you can't do your job, just say so, and I'll assign someone who can. I knew it was a mistake to trust you with this campaign for Golden--I tried to warn Bart about you but he wouldn't listen."

"I can do the job, sir," I said, working hard to keep any hint of emotion out of my voice. "There was a delay in receiving one of the designs for the posters from the art department. Rather than send the portfolio incomplete, I talked to Bart personally about this yesterday afternoon and explained the situation to him. He said he understood, that it was no problem and that he would get the message to his ad guys. There must have been a miscommunication."

"Oh, there was a miscommunication, all right," he continued to rant. By this time, he had attracted the attention of most of my coworkers in the other cubicles around me. Some of them--the nicer ones--gave me sympathetic glances and pretended not to pay attention. The others made no effort to hide their delight. When I got this plum assignment over some of these more experienced employees, there had been plenty of hard feelings to go around.

I shifted my attention back to John, who was still in the process of chewing my ass out.

"The 'miscommunication' occurred when I agreed to let you handle this project in the first damn place." Like he had much choice in the matter. Bart Johnson had asked for me personally and threatened to pull out when Atkins tried to foist someone else on him. Atkins glared down at me one more time for good measure and pointed a bony finger in my face. "Get your shit together, O'Neal, or you'll be out on your ass." He straightened back up and stormed back to his office. "Faggot. Fucking ass pirate," he muttered, not quite under his breath, as he stomped away.

"Arrgh," I said, only bothering to lower my voice a little. Why should I, since he'd meant for me to hear him, and that was one of his milder insults. They barely even registered on me anymore. He'd been warned twice already by Human Resources about his racial and homophobic comments to the staff, so he'd been trying a little harder recently to clean up his act. This morning, it seemed all bets were off.

Golden Pet Foods was an up and coming manufacturer who believed in a more natural approach to pet food. Their owner and COO, Bart Johnson, had wanted me to oversee the prospectus I was preparing for them, because I had done work for them in the past, back a few months ago, before Bart's company had taken off and he could afford a special ad department. He and I had worked well together in the past and now Golden was introducing a new refrigerated raw food called Boney-fides, a product he'd worked to develop personally, so it was near and dear to his heart. It was due to launch to the company's distributors shortly after the first of the year.

My company had been given a limited amount of time to get the sample and coupon offers ready, arrange the sweepstakes and contests that would help introduce the new product, and design and provide all the special store displays. It had been running me ragged for the last few weeks to get everything approved and done on time, and I had to be in charge of the entire project myself because Bart Johnson himself had demanded it. I said I hated my job--I never said I wasn't damn good at it.

I tore my eyes away from John Atkins' retreating back and sublimated my fantasies of grabbing John in a headlock and wrestling his fat ass to the floor by taking a huge bite of the jelly doughnut on my desk. I glanced over at the grinning face of the guy who sat in the cubicle beside me, Chris Bennett.

"Man, he tore you a new one, huh?" he said. "Better watch yourself, Jace. We all know how much he hates you. One of these days when he's talking to you, his head's just going to explode."

"I wish," I mumbled around the doughnut in my mouth, and turned my back on him. I didn't have time for Chris's shit, and I sure as hell didn't have the patience.

It hadn't always been like this. I hadn't always dreaded every workday. Once upon a time I lived in New York City and loved what I did for a living, looking forward to going to work each day. My life had been exciting and full of promise, and I had actually enjoyed my coworkers and had a future I was really looking forward to. I was going places--everyone said so--and then my life blew up.

Does it sound like I felt sorry for myself? You bet your ass I did.

I left New York after all that happened there and came back home to find a job in Atlanta. Not right away, of course. I limped along for another couple of months, so depressed and humiliated I could barely drag my ass out of bed each morning. I pretended not to notice the sidelong glances or hear the whispers of my coworkers, and no longer being greeted in the hallways by my bosses. I tried to be nice when another guy got the promotion that should have been mine and finally admitted to myself that the handwriting on the wall was spelling out my name.

After I returned to Atlanta I got a job pretty quick. Actually, I was surprised to be headhunted aggressively by Suzanne Tate, who was now my supervisor at Everest Enterprises. It wasn't the same kind of advertising, of course--those top companies were mostly back in New York or Chicago. The position was in sales promotions, which wasn't the same thing at all, but the best I could do on short notice. It wasn't nearly as much money either, but it was the best job offer I'd had and I needed a job right away, so I took it.

I would have come home sooner if I hadn't had my head up my ass and hadn't been practically ignoring the fucking disaster that had been happening at home right alongside my own calamity in New York.

My dad had been playing golf when the heart attack they called the "widow maker" hit him a few months before I left the city. No one knew exactly who had come up with that term, but it refers to the kind of heart attack where the main artery to the heart is blocked right at the beginning of its course, and then the whole artery goes down after it. This essentially meant that the whole front wall of my dad's heart collapsed. As far as heart attacks go, it was a big one, with big consequences, and the doctors said he was probably dead that day before he hit the green space at the ninth hole.

My dad's death financially devastated my mom. But I didn't find any of that out until later when I came back home. Not only had he heavily mortgaged the house to pay for my college tuition but in my senior year of college, I had been involved in a small scandal at my fraternity at Mercer. Eventually it was settled out of court and nothing much came of it, but my dad had borrowed heavily against his pension fund to pay a lawyer and even got a second mortgage on the house they'd lived in for as long as I could remember. And at the same time as all this, he'd been trying to pay for an expensive school for my brother, Tyler, all out of his salary as a high school Literature and Drama teacher.

Tyler has Fragile X syndrome, a severe intellectual and behavioral disability that is one of the known causes of autism. In Tyler's case, at least, he also had significant intellectual deficits. My dad had been telling my mother that his state teacher's insurance covered my brother's tuition. It did not.

It was only after he passed away that my mother discovered he didn't have any extra insurance policies, not even on the mortgages, so she had only the equivalency of one year of his salary to try to pay all of his final expenses. She managed to pay for the funeral and catch up the mortgage and a few of the bills, but there just wasn't enough to do any more. She had her own small teacher's pension and Social Security, but that was it. She didn't tell me the extent of what was happening, because she said later that she didn't want me to give up my dream of New York City to come back home. By the time I finally arrived, things were in a mess.

My mom, who had long suffered from depression, was really ill for a while after my father's death. She wasn't taking her medicine for a while and she became unable to care for Tyler, who had a lot of behavioral issues, made much worse--almost unmanageable--by my dad's death. So, my aunt, my mom's only other living relative, had arranged for Tyler to be sent to a residential ward at Central State Hospital. I'll never forgive myself for not taking the time to investigate the place. I consoled myself with the idea that it would be only temporary, until my mom was feeling better.  And I had selfishly allowed it to happen, because my own life was in free-fall at the time.

Anyway, for the past year since I'd been back, a huge share of my time and energy, not to mention any extra money I might have once had in the bank had been totally used up, bringing Tyler home and helping him recover from the trauma of that move. I was also trying to pay a sitter and pay off some of the family debt. The upshot of all this was that I needed my job, no matter how much I hated it at times.

By five o'clock that afternoon, I was exhausted. I hadn't been sleeping well recently, and just the night before, we'd had a prowler out back near the tool shed in backyard. I only knew it because of Mrs. Anderson's dog, Wally, barking his head off just after midnight and waking me up. His barking was so frantic and over the top that I looked out and saw a dark shadow disengage from the blackness of the tool shed door and sprint toward the hedge separating her yard from ours. The form disappeared over the hedge and I heard Mrs. A's dog give a sharp yelp, like it got kicked. Her lights went on and I watched for a few minutes to make sure everything was okay, but when the lights went back out again, I went back to bed too. I checked the shed the next morning, but everything looked intact, not that I would have noticed much in all the chaos. I'd inherited my decided lack of handyman skills from my dad apparently, who never took great care, or any care at all, really, of his yard tools. That was about all we ever kept in the shed.

To top it all off, today was October thirty-first--Halloween, All Hallows Eve, an observance of the time in the liturgical calendar dedicated to remembering the dead. Oddly appropriate, considering the fact that I'd be dead in the water if I didn't pull this Golden Pet Foods project off. Atkins hated me and was not going to let an opportunity to get rid of me pass him by. Uncomfortable, I pulled at the collar of the disreputable jacket I was wearing and wished again I'd taken Suzanne's advice and gone earlier to the costume store.

Suzanne, my immediate supervisor, had thought it would be "great fun" for all of us to dress up, and I had finally capitulated and dressed like Jason from Halloween. Unimaginative, but I had little choice. Because I'd waited too late to get a costume, it was literally the only one left in the store except for an Oompa-Loompa. Or that's what Suzanne said when she offered to pick one up for me.

The costume consisted of camo pants, a black shirt, an ugly camo jacket with the iconic white face mask and a scary-ass machete. The machete wasn't real, of course--some kind of realistic plastic. But it looked genuine. I shoved it down in my belt, but I couldn't very well wear the mask in the office all day, so I stuck it in a drawer. The upshot was that no one had even guessed who I was. I just looked like a badly dressed homeless person, maybe looking to pick up some odd jobs in lawn care.

After a long day in the damn costume, I was ready to turn in my mask and go home, but of course, that didn't mean it was going to happen. Not tonight. I heaved a sigh as most of my coworkers made a mad stampede to the door later that afternoon when five o'clock rolled around. What was it Drew Carey said? "Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar."

Since I needed my deposit back, I placed the mask and machete carefully down on my desk so I could see it and not leave them where I'd forget all about them then I went down to the break room to brew myself a pot of coffee.  I was going to need a huge infusion of caffeine to be able to pull this off tonight. When it was ready, I poured myself a large cup, defiantly added three spoonsful of sugar and a couple packets of creamer--fuck the calories and the cholesterol--and headed back to my tiny cubicle.

If the launch went well, that corner cubicle I'd had my eye on for a while could be mine. It wasn't the same as an office, of course, but that space would still be better than what I had now. Claustrophobically small, my own little area was jammed up against a window that let in heat in the summer and cold breezes in the winter. The window was currently festooned with sticky notes reminding me of this appointment and that deadline. The notes were supposed to remind me of things I needed to do, but because I was cursed with a truly bad memory, I often forgot to take a look at the damn notes, a kind of running joke around the office with my cubicle mates. My shortcomings weren't quite so amusing to my supervisors. Suzanne had told me as much earlier that day at lunch.

"Jace, you've got to get more organized," she said as she unpacked a chef salad from her lunch bag, along with enough crackers and croutons to feed most of the people in the break room. "Seriously, we're all beginning to wonder what's up with you. I hate to bring this up, but since you broke up with Dylan, you've not been yourself."

I chose to ignore that last comment and took out a huge slice of cold, greasy, delicious pepperoni pizza and a Diet Coke from my bag. I was tempted by the chocolate birthday cake that someone had left out on the table, but I saw Suzanne eyeing my lunch with both disdain and envy so I decided to forego dessert so as not to antagonize her any more than she already was.

"It has only been a couple of months."

"Oh, is that all? Sorry, but you two have such a volatile relationship, it's hard to keep up."

I rolled my eyes but refrained from comment. Sometimes that was the best way to handle Suzanne, who could be intrusive and nosy about my personal life.  I took another bite of pizza and she sighed.

"Really, I don't see how you can eat like that every day and look the way you do. It's going to catch up to you someday. And why do you even bother with the Diet Coke?"

I shrugged as I took another bite. "You cut down where you can."

She shook her head in disgust. "If I ate half that much for lunch, I'd weigh three hundred pounds. Where in the world do you get that kind of metabolism?"

I took another huge bite and shrugged. "I don't know, but I thank God for it, especially on days like this. I need the extra energy."

Suzanne picked at her salad and relentlessly returned to unpleasant subjects. "You know that John told me he didn't really trust you could get it together enough to handle this launch for Golden? Not a good sign, Jace. Not good at all."

"John's an ass," I said belligerently, but in a really soft voice as I glanced around to make sure no one else was listening. "I don't know how you stand to work with him," I said, on a roll now. "If I had to work directly under him, I'd have killed myself a long time ago." I took a gulp of soda and let my eyes stray longingly back to the cake. It called to me in a dark, siren's voice.

"You need to find a way to get along with him," she said. "Especially in light of what happened last Christmas."

Some of John Atkins hatred and my current job insecurity stemmed from an unfortunate incident at last year's company Christmas party. He had walked in with his wife a little before midnight at the Christmas party our company gave every year, while I was giving a little impromptu performance on the karaoke machine. When he walked through the door, Suzanne had just handed me the microphone, and I happened to be belting out a chorus of Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" into a karaoke machine microphone. I was exceedingly drunk, and I think she may have dared me to do it, not that it would have taken much. When I drink, I think I channel dead rock stars because not only am I a slut for karaoke, but I also truly believe I'm the world's greatest undiscovered singer. There may have been some inappropriate bumping and grinding going on as well. Allegedly.