Friday, June 23, 2006

EXCERPT: Second Chances

Excerpt from Novella, “Second Chances

By Maxine E. Thompson


Autumn Equinox

Around ten-thirty this morning, Mica, who, in keeping with most small businesses’ unwritten protocol, has an amorphous job description, and acts as a salesperson/receptionist/accountant, rings my office and speaks in a hushed whisper. “He’s still calling, making threats and hanging up.”

I suck my teeth, bending my elbows over my head. “There’s nothing I can do,” I say. “Don’t worry about it. He’s just talking out the side of his neck. He’s harmless. Just a bunch of talk.”
A knock resounds at my office door and I glance up to see that Nadine and Mica have eased themselves into my cubicle.

“Mrs. Jordan, do you think you should’ve told your husband?” Mica’s
thirty-something bronze face looks uneasy. I can see the Mayan blood warring with the restrained Indian blood in her face.

Without any of us calling his name, I know she is talking about Ernest.

“Yes, perhaps you should get a restraining order.” Miss Nadine wrings her chubby hands.
We all shake our heads at the same time and suck in our breaths. Ernest has called and cursed me out twice in the past two weeks, but each time, I hung up in his face.

“Mica, Miss Nadine, I’m not worried about him.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, I can handle it.”
“Perhaps you should tell your husband.”
“For what? Ernest is not going to do anything.”
“Stop being so strong.”

I laugh inwardly. If they only knew. After they close my office door, I grab my first cup of mocha latte and settle into work. We will sing “Happy Birthday” to Mica at lunchtime. I put that at the top of my to-do list, which has twenty other things on it, most of which I will never get to. The main priority—how to pay my rent on the office this month and keep my employees on payroll—is penned in invisible ink.

I decide to start with collections—something that might bring in some money and keep my doors open. “Ms. Josephson, are you sure that you can’t make your payment today? Your invoices said ninety days. It has been 160 days. Does that make sense?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve been laid off. I don’t have it.”
“Ms. Josephson, I’m sorry that you’ve been laid off, but when I extended that credit, I gave it to you in good faith. Do you have a credit card I can put it on today?”
“I don’t have any credit left on any of my cards. I’ve been paying my bills on credit and they are all maxed out.”
“Can you make a partial payment?”

Finally, Ms. Josephson agrees to postdate a check. I place the receiver in the phone’s cradle and shake my head. Now I understand how my bill collectors, who I’m ducking and dodging feel. Lord, what a hypocrite I am. I’ve been making part of my payrolls out of my savings, but now I am getting down to the wire.

Why didn’t I incorporate and get some corporate credit to tide me through this cash flow crunch? But I started this business by the seat of my pants. For the past few months, I have been making payrolls out of my investments and stock from my first job, which I landed straight out of grad school when I worked for two years as an investment adviser at the bank. Let’s just say, the till is empty.

My marriage crosses my mind and I vaguely remember a Web site where a guy says he can stop divorces. Maybe I should look him up on Google, then contact Mr. Stop Divorce or whatever he’s called, but something makes me shrug it off. Marquise and I are just going through a phase. Our marriage is solvent. We’re going to be okay. I just need to spend more time with Marquise. Then, maybe I can get pregnant.

Around eleven-thirty in the morning, the sun dances across my desk and I look up, feeling my mood rise with the late morning sun. Suddenly my cell phone rings.

“Hey, Capri.” Talk about synchronicity. This time, Marquise’s voice sounds a little humble. A funny feeling quakes through me as opposed to the thrills he used to incite.
I grunt in reply.

“Yo. Still mad?”
“I can’t talk now.”
“Can you pick my uniforms up from the cleaner’s?”

My business phone line rings. As the queen of multitasking, I often juggle two calls at once, but today, for some reason, I’m eager to terminate the conversation with Marquise. “Gotta run. We’ll pick this back up when I get home. I’ve got something I need to talk you about.” I will talk about us getting pregnant when I get home, I think.

“Peace. Out.”

I hang up and a thought occurs to me. Basically, my two employees and Marquise are my only contacts with the outside world. The rest are with suppliers, customers, and vendors. My business has consumed my whole life. I live and breathe my business. Sometimes, I even dream about my business.

As a rainbow team, Miss Nadine and Mica are part of the double whammy—minority females—African-American and Hispanic. I’d hired Ernest about a year ago because he had a background in computer programming and came highly recommended.

Five years ago, when I created a patented software for writers, (Capri’s Writer’s Software), during the Silicone Valley heyday and before the dotcom failure days, the on line and off-line sales had been modest, but at least the business was viable. With the down economy, I layed off Ernest since he was the least productive of all my employees. He always seemed like he was daydreaming and shooting off his mouth about what he used to do for his last software company in Silicone Valley. Not to mention, it did irk me that I sensed he resented taking orders from a black woman.


They often say that the craziest days of your life start out in the most normal way. I remember having my cup of latte with a dollop of French vanilla whipped cream as I usually do. By memory and rote, I go online and answer my e-mails. I make cold calls on other companies.

As soon as I settle back down with my second cup of latte, my business phone rings. A sultry voice hisses into my ear, “He doesn’t love you.”

“Pardon me?”
“Give him his freedom. He doesn’t want you. He’s planning to leave you.”
“Wait a minute. Who is this?” I screech, voice cracking like a broken guitar string.
“This is woman-to-woman.”
I put my left hand on my hips and raise my voice. “Take your tired,
Betty-White-line-stealing, skank—”

I am in the midst of my tirade when I hear, but don’t hear, the buzzer ring in the front office. In the backdrop of my rage, Mica must have buzzed someone into the building.

This anonymous woman’s call has disturbed me for another reason, too. Somehow, her voice sounds strangely familiar. Now where did I hear that voice before?

I am so disgruntled, though, I don’t pay any attention to the loud boom coming from the front office. I think it is a sonic boom or perhaps one of the construction teams working near our office, so I glance out the storeroom window behind my office. I don’t see any construction crew working on any buildings outside. Then I hear a staccato sound and the walls reverberate and shake like they do during earthquakes here in Los Angeles. I wonder what the commotion is.
At the second loud blast sound, I leave my phone jangling, the alleged home wrecker on the other line to be dealt with later after I deal with whatever new emergency has jumped off. I figure it’s an earthquake again. We’ve had an unseasonably warm September that tends to send us baking and shaking, as we call it in L.A.

“What is it—”

As I open my office door and sprint into the lobby, I cry, “What’s going on?” but this is as far as I get. My jaw drops wide open.

If time is ever said to have stopped, it does for me at this moment. I freeze in my tracks. For a fleeting moment, I remember the dream I’d had of drowning last night, and oddly, I think of all the things going wrong in my life right now.

What I see next turns my blood to sludge. There in the entrance lobby are my two trusted employees—Miss Nadine and Mica—sprawled like red-stained limp rag dolls on the floor. One has been shot in the head and one in the chest. Their eyes are wide open as if they met death in sheer terror. Their crimson blood forms two spiderweb splats on the wall and the German chocolate cake resembles something a dynamite stick had been set off in the middle. Blood drips through the brown and caramel icing and splattered bits of chocolate and coconut paint the wall. My only thought is, This can’t be happening.

Then, what I see is a bone-chilling glare I’ll never forget as long as I live. It is Ernest, brandishing what looks like a shotgun. I’ve heard of employees going “postal,” but good grief, I’m just a small business owner—I never thought this would happen to me.

For a moment, I digest the dirt ring around Ernest’s collar, taste the sweat of his brush haircut, and inhale the day-old musk on his body. A wild deranged look glints in his eye. My rapid heart beats to the rhythm of too little, too late, too little, too late. Why didn’t I recognize the signs? Too late, I realize Ernest is a loose cannon and now I know his threats have been real. Why hadn’t I taken him more seriously?

Speechless, I swallow a wad of spit. Finally I speak up with a bravado I don’t really feel.

“Ain’t this a trip? Ernest, put that gun down. Are you crazy?”

Ernest doesn’t answer as he holds me in the dead silence of his stare. I’m hoping to unnerve him or even intimidate him, but I recognize the emptiness in his eyes and suddenly I know beyond a doubt, he is going to shoot me. With nothing to lose, I am engulfed by fear and rage. I am going to die, but oh Lord, not like this. I think of Marquise—how will he take it? Will he mourn my loss? Will he feel sorry for how rotten he’s been acting lately?

I turn to flee but something knocks me to my feet. When the bullet first hits me below my waist, I don’t feel anything. Then a piercing fire explodes and radiates through my hips. It takes a moment for the pain to register. The next thing that runs through me is, “How dare him? If I live, I’m going to wring his scrawny little neck.”

When I come out of shock, I crawl to the phone.

And with my last millimeter of strength, I dial 911. Beads of sweat pop on my forehead. The smell of tarragon, basil and African lavender fill the room. The acrid taste of salty blood fills my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I stare as Ernest turns and puts the barrel of the gun in his mouth. Streaks of blood cover the phone as I dial and the last thing I notice is the German chocolate cake sticks to the wall and resembles a piñata. Just before I pass out, I called on a name I hadn’t mentioned in a longtime. “God, help me.”


MsJayy said...

None that is the way to reel a reader in!! And me trying to work through a self-imposed book diet. No fair!

PatriciaW said...

I'm with Ms. Jayy. I'm supposed to be trying to cut down on my reading to focus on my writing, and you throw something like this out to us, Maxine!

Very nice hook! Definitely need to read the rest.

Patricia W
Readin N Writin with Patricia

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