Previous chapters: one, two, and three.
Chapter Four: Mike Popkins
He’s out of breath. Mike rests his hands on his thighs as he leans forward a bit, trying to calm his heart and get some oxygen. He glares at the treadmill next to him. Ten minutes. Ten lousy minutes and the thing whooped his backside. Barb used to walk on the damn thing at least thirty minutes every morning, even before breakfast or a cup of coffee. And look where that got her. For all her commitment to regular exercise and eating healthy, she’d died of an unexpected heart attack.
When Mike finally catches his breath, he heads into the kitchen and grabs a beer and a bag of chips. Right to his favorite, well-worn recliner it is. He plops down with a grunt and flicks on the TV, mindlessly clicking through the channels. There’s nothing but talk shows, infomercials, news, and soap operas on in the mid-afternoon.
“I pay how much every month for how many channels, and there’s nothing good on?” Mike mutters to himself.
He sighs and opens the beer, taking a long drag. The potato chips are calling him, so he spends the next fifteen minutes eating through half of the bag and finishing his beer while a lady on TV goes on about buying “the special woman in your life a dazzling gold charm bracelet.” And “If you order in now, there’s guaranteed delivery just in time for Christmas.”
The ringing of the phone shakes Mike out of his dream. He was just about to kiss Barb and give her one of those silly bracelets. Not realizing he’d fallen asleep, he momentarily panics as he reaches in his pocket for his phone. It’s already 7:30, but there’s still time before he needs to leave for work. Seeing his daughter-in-law’s name on the screen, he sighs. Let it go to voicemail or pick up?
“Hi, Mike.” Annie sounds cheerful, like always, but Mike isn’t fooled. She wears her smiles like they’re painted on and is that forced kind of happy you find in Disney World workers. “I was hoping I’d reach you.”
“Well, you have. What’s going on?” Mike asks the question, even though he knows the answer. Annie tries too hard to play the peacemaker between his son and him.
“Well, we missed you at Thanksgiving. We were hoping to see you for Christmas. The boys would love to see you.”
Mike’s heart clenches. “By ‘boys,’ I’m sure you mean my grandkids, not my son.”
“Come on, Mike. We’ve got an extra bed.”
He knows it’s petty, but Mike wants to know why his son’s family doesn’t come visit him. He’s the old man. The kids aren’t that little anymore.
“I’ll think about it. Might be hard to get the time off work. Lots of people traveling, you know. Gotta keep the rest stop clean.” Yeah, lots of people traveling but you, Mike, he thinks sourly. Still, his pride won’t step aside long enough for him to give his poor daughter-in-law a straight answer.
“All right. Just give me a call, all right?”
“Sure thing, Annie. Thanks.”
The line goes dead. Bless Annie. She was the one who’d really invited him for Thanksgiving, not Calvin. Ever since Barb died, Mike and Calvin have been at odds. They couldn’t be the same room without someone starting an argument. Mike knew what Calvin thought of him — that he was lazy, that he hadn’t honored his mom’s wishes that he take care of himself, that he wouldn’t make the effort to keep the family together without her.
What did Calvin know?
“Your mother was the picture of perfect health, young man, and she’s gone now. Ain’t nothing gonna change that. Not I’ve gotta figure out how to do things on my own.”
Mike knew grief. Hell, Barb and he had known it together for years. He often wished he would have had a daughter. Maybe she would’ve understood what his stubborn son didn’t. Annie didn’t need the burden of trying to fix a broken family. But Mike and Barb were lucky to have the one child they did. Years of miscarriages or not conceiving at all nearly drove them apart, but then Barb became pregnant with Calvin.
Mike shakes his head, trying to push the thoughts of the past away. He stands, leaving crumbs on the chair and the empty beer can and half-empty chip bag on the tray next to the chair. After a quick shower, he puts on his uniform of a light blue shirt and black pants that are getting too tight.
As Mike gets in his car, he marvels at how mild it’s been so far for December. Besides that snowstorm right before Thanksgiving, the white stuff hasn’t been back. On the drive to work, he knows he’d be smart to wrestle it out with that damn treadmill again come tomorrow.
When he arrives, he is greeted by several people who work in the restaurants and by Gloria, who’s working in the gift shop. Mike nods and waves to them. They’re nice enough people, but he’s not much of a talker. He sidles up to the burger joint and orders some food. There’s still a half-hour until his shift starts.
“The usual?” asks Wayne from behind the counter.
“Yep, two doubles, a large fry, and a Coke, Wayne, young man.”
Wayne smiles. “One of these days, it should be on the house, Mike.”
Mike waves him off and forks over the cash. He doesn’t carry credit cards, much to the younger generations’ shock. He adds the change to his other pocket. It’ll go in the change jar that sits on the kitchen counter when he gets home, a leftover from when Barb was alive. “Fun money,” as she liked to call it.
Ten minutes later, Mike is done with his dinner. He can hear Calvin’s whiney voice saying, “Dad, this is exactly the sort of thing Mom would’ve hated. What, you couldn’t take a few minutes to cook yourself dinner at home?”
But cooking for one lonely old man isn’t practical, and Mike doesn’t cook. He eyes the clock. Still fifteen minutes. Clocking in early isn’t okay with the boss, so Mike steps outside to smoke. He grumbles at himself for eating so quickly as the indigestion hits him.
Lighting up, he scans the outside in the dark. Of course, she’s not there yet. It’s too early. A few minutes later, Mike puts out his cigarette and goes inside to begin his shift: 9:00 to 6:00 every day but Wednesdays and Sundays.
Several hours later, Mike takes a break and reaches for another cigarette. This time, he sees her, sitting in her usual spot, that crazy lady. Mike isn’t sure what propels him, but he walks over to her.
“Hey, you mind if I join you?” he asks, offering a cigarette.
“What?” She seems snapped out of a daze. Removing her sunglasses, her eyes settle on Mike. Recognition stirs in them and she even smiles slightly as she takes the cigarette. “Thanks.”
Mike sits down slowly on the seat. “You know, you’re lucky winter hasn’t really started yet. Are you still gonna sit out here then?”
The woman takes a couple of drags from her cigarette. “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
“It’s warmer inside.” Mike finishes his cigarette, stands, and crushes it in the cigarette disposal. “Gotta get back to work, but think about what I said. Warmer inside.”
He leaves her gaping at his back as he walks away.