The Taut Rope
by Ann Hite
“I think we could use a drink, Allen.” Thatcher turned to the waiter, “Two gin and tonics.” He pulled his tie loose and massaged the bridge of his nose. Allen recognized the stalling tactic as a way to make him grovel and accept less money. If Thatcher wanted Allen’s work, he had to pay the price, Allen’s price.
“Could I have coffee, instead?” Allen smiled at Thatcher, who wore a poker face.
“I’ve never known you to turn down a good drink.”
“I gave it up four months ago. I’m running a topnotch firm and it takes a clear head.”
Thatcher nodded, but watched Allen as a trainer watches a wild animal. “Well, shall we get down to business?” He placed a folder in front of Allen.
Allen slid his finger inside. His company would float. With Thatcher’s account, the company would soar. Now Jenny would trust him.
Thatcher tapped a fork against his drink. “I have to tell you,” he pointed his fork at the folder, “that’s some of the best work I’ve seen.” Thatcher cleared his throat, took a long swallow from his drink, and wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. “The presentation just misses the mark, too flashy. Our company isn’t ready for all this high-tech stuff. We have a solid image to maintain. I wonder if you should have remained with Barker and Wilson.”
Allen swallowed the sandy feeling in his mouth. “So, you decided to use Barker and Wilson?”
“Bob Wilson made a presentation more in line with our thinking.”
“You mean the same old stuff!” Allen stood. “What you’re afraid of, Mr. Thatcher, is change.”
“I’m sorry, Allen.”
Allen pushed the folder across the table, collected his portfolio, and put the account behind him. A vision, a clear glass tumbler, beads of water collecting on the outside, melting ice weakening the fine liquid, pushed him through rush-hour traffic, home to obligations as gray as a winter sky.
Jenny met him at the door talking, hands fluttering with every word; he imagined a beautiful butterfly. “This dinner could be my big break, Allen. Finally, the old man is taking my partnership seriously. I’m a good lawyer. Think what we could do with all that money! God it will be great!” She rattled on while gathering papers from the coffee table. “Why not take Amy out for a hamburger? I’ll be home soon. You two need to spend time together.”
Didn’t she remember his meeting? “If I can get her out of her room long enough. Face it, Jenny, she hates me.”
“Oh, Allen! That’s not fair.” She edged her way to the door. “She’s almost a teenager. She hates everyone.”
“The only time she comes around me is when you make her.”
“Remember what the counselor said? She didn’t stop trusting you over night.”
He pictured Jenny kneeling in her flower garden, jeans, damp at the knees, a strand of hair escaping from the old ball cap, pulling the weeds that threatened her plants. “I’ve done everything but turn flips, Jenny. I guess you and that counselor will want me to do that next.”
“Allen, what’s eating you tonight?” Jenny turned the doorknob.
“I don’t know, just edgy.”
“I’ll be back soon. Hang in there.” She touched his face. “Invite your daughter to dinner.”
He wanted to tell Jenny about his day–two months of work down the drain–but the door opened, and the setting sun slid through, pulling her away.
He sat on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. The phone rang on the antique trunk. “Hello?”
“Hey buddy! Where in the the world have you been? I’ve been calling for a month or two.”
Matt. Allen thought of pressing the “end” button on the portable phone. “I’ve been working my butt off.” Amy slid across the polished wood floors in her sock feet on her way to the kitchen. “Young Lady! Don’t eat a thing. We’re going out.” She reached for a bag of chips on the counter. “You heard me!” She cut through him with her eyes, sliding back the way she came.
“Sorry, Amy’s being a real pain.”
“Why don’t we get together tonight?”
“Can’t. Jenny has a business dinner. Amy and I are going out.”
“I’ll meet you at Joe’s. We’ll talk. Hang out. I take my kids there all the time.”
“Jenny will have my butt if I take Amy around a sports bar.”
“It’s not a bar; besides, it won’t be the first time your butt was in a sling.”
“I want some hot wings. I’ll see you in thirty minutes.” Four months earlier, he promised Jenny he would stay away from the old crowd. He would have promised her the moon that night, anything to keep her from walking out on him. The liquor caused him to hit Amy too hard, just once. She had a mouth on her. One pop and his whole world began to crumble. Well, his promises and dreams were falling apart at the seams; the Thatchers of the world stripped them down, layer by layer, like coats of peeling paint.
“Amy, get ready. We’re going to Joe’s. Matt’s going to meet us there.” No sound. “You remember him.”
The door to her room opened, spilling light into the hall. “Yeah, your old drinking buddy.” The words bounced off the walls, slapping him in the face.
Allen found Matt at the bar watching a Braves game on the wide-screen television. He slapped Matt on the back. Amy stood close, arms folded across her chest, a sentinel guarding the gate to heaven.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Matt laughed. “What are you drinking?”
“What? Don’t tell me you’re not going to have a drink with me? Boy, that pretty lawyer has you by the balls.”
He’d order a drink and nurse it all evening. “Just one.” He signaled the bartender. “I want a bourbon on the rocks.” He turned to Amy, “You want a burger and fries?” Amy just shrugged. “Send it to the table.”
“From what I hear, you need a good stiff drink.” Matt took the chair across from him.
“Word travels fast.” Amy stood behind her chair. “Sit, Amy.” She threw herself into the chair.
“I heard the news yesterday.”
The waitress placed the drink in front of Allen. “I’ll have your hamburger in a minute.” Amy nodded and looked away.
The liquid slid down Allen’s throat, a hug from a long lost friend. “That son-of-a-bitch knew two weeks ago he didn’t want my work.”
“Who needs that him anyway?”
“I did. I needed the money.” The bourbon embraced his mind and loosened his tongue.
The waitress placed a plate in front of Amy. “Do you need another?” She nodded to Allen’s empty glass.
“Yeah, but put more bourbon and less rocks.” He winked at the waitress.
“Well, one thing about you, Allen, You can still drink.”
He saw his face reflected in Amy’s accusing eyes. “How’s the wife and kids, Matt?”
“The same old thing. Jane stays home and bitches because I don’t.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Amy kept watching him. “Eat your hamburger.” Allen lost count of drinks as he talked with Matt.
“You’ve made it man. You’re better off than me.” Matt clapped Allen on the back.
Amy’s hamburger sat untouched on her plate. The child could be so damn selfish. “Why haven’t you eaten?”
“I’m not hungry.” Her voice, quiet, a judgment, echoed in the noisy room.
“Are you pouting? I bought you supper. This food is a the world lot better than you’d get at that cheap- place your mother takes you.” Tears filled her eyes. God! He hated whining. “Just eat so we can leave!” She took a small bite. A tear rolled down her cheek. Allen pushed himself out of the chair. “Let’s just go. Your mom should be home by now.”
Matt looked at his watch, “I promised Karen I’d be home in time to read the kids a bedtime story. I’m up a creek now.” Matt dug into his pocket. “Tonight is on me.”
Allen jerked his wallet out of his pocket. “I think I can pay for tonight.”
“Sure, Buddy, I didn’t mean anything.” Matt spread his hands in front of him.
Allen pulled out a fifty out. “I have the money. My wife makes good money. It’s on me.”
“Sounds good to me.” Matt grinned. “Can you drive home?”
“Yeah, you used to drink me under the table and drive better drunk than you did sober.”
“That’s me.” The floor rippled like a lake under his feet.
“Hey ! Watch what you’re doing!”
Allen turned to see Amy picking up the contents of a woman’s purse. “Hey! Don’t talk to my daughter like that!”
The idiot shook his head, as if he knew something Allen didn’t. “Just call a taxi, man” Allen walked out the door.
When he inserted the key in the car door, he noticed Amy standing her ground, casting a long shadow under the streetlight. “Dad, I want to drive home. I’ve watched you. It’s simple. You could rest.”
He looked into her face and saw a knowledge, deep, rushing like a river, old with wisdom. “You’ve been listening to your mother too much. A twelve-year-old can’t drive a car. Daddy just had a few drinks. I can drive just fine.” Amy stood her ground. “Get in the damn car, Amy! You’re not too old to get your butt beat!” She got in and slammed the door.
Traffic thinned out once he exited the highway and drove the back roads into the suburbs. Allen switched on the radio to a late night talk show to keep him alert. His dinner with Matt was proof that a little fun wouldn’t kill anyone. Amy’s foot jabbed an imaginary brake. “Don’t you trust your old dad? Relax. Everything is fine. We had a good dinner together.” Rain began to splatter the windshield like tiny water balloons dropped from a second story window. He fumbled for the wipers. The lines on the road seemed to vanish. In the glare of oncoming headlights, red eyes stared at him.
“Watch out Dad!”
The car left the road–the windshield shattered into a large spider web of glass; metal wrinkled like tissue paper; objects rushed past the windows in a blur. After what seemed to be hours, the car met a tree and stopped with a bounce.
“Amy, are you okay? Do you hurt anywhere?” The air turned cold. Reality seeped into his mind like the hiss of the radiator.
Dead silence. He shook Amy, who moved like a rag doll. “Answer me, Amy!” Her head fell back against the seat. “Amy!” He shook her again. “God!” He forced the door open. A bare tree waved, cracked in the wind, with long bony branches resembling a hawk’s claw closing over its prey.
Amy, light in his arms, remained motionless in his arms as he attempted to climb the steep bank, falling to his knees in the dampness and rot, pushing up only to fall again after a few steps. Mounting the nightmare, he held onto its silky black mane, riding bareback until the finish line came within reach. He remembered going to a small circus as a child, sitting through bad clowns, a lion trainer, and a man throwing knives at a lady over his shoulder. When the acrobat took his first step on the rope high above the audience’s heads, Allen sat on the edge of his seat. The acrobat made his way, careful, one measured step at a time, across the rope. He held a bright red pole for balance. The pole moved a hair. Allen jumped to his feet, watching, powerless to help, as the acrobat, free falling, grabbed at thin air.
My formative years were spent in Atlanta, Georgia during the sixties with my extended family, who believed the south was a country of its own. From this lethal combination was born a writer, who to this day finds the characters from her family’s past creeping into her prose. It’s the stuff that makes writing interesting.
My short story, Gabriel’s Horn, appeared in the January issue of The Dead Mule, a small southern literary magazine in business since 1995; Appaloosa Wind appeared on December 24, 2003 as the featured story in The Fiction Warehouse, a small literary magazine out of California; Shelter Belt appeared in the March/April issue of Skyline Magazine, an up and coming literary magazine—it’s an actual glossy that makes money—out of New York; Borrowed Time appeared in the March issue of Poor MoJo Almanac, a small literary magazine out of California. Mister Snake Gets Religion will appear in the late spring issue of Cold Glass. I studied creative writing under Jane Hill, author and former Senior Editor of Longstreet Press and Atlanta author, Emily Ellison. My writing has appeared in case history form with BP Oil, where I am a technical writer.