Fate Pays The Rent (Twelfth Installment)

Jeff took the mug from his desk, placed it in front of the coffee-pot, pulled the spigot and looked at the still-empty mug. Clement was just coming out of the bathroom. “So did you make coffee and then act like a selfish jerk and drink it all or did you just never make any?”
“I never made any; I had a Red Bull. Besides, why would I make any for you? You’ve been gone for hours. Where the hell did you go?”
“Where I said I was gonna go. I drove around and tried to forget about my problems.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah, till I came in here and found out there wasn’t any coffee. Then they all came flooding back.” He put his mug back on the desk, opened the refrigerator and the milk carton, swirled the milk in the carton and smelled it. “Geez, we need to get a new cow.”
“There’s another Red Bull in there. Go for it.”
“What did you do while I was gone?”
“I have been working. I talked to fifteen of our guys who ate lunch at a school today. Nobody ate the chicken strips and everyone they talked with about them cast their mark on the ‘nasty’ side of the ledger.”
“I don’t understand how that’s possible. We’ve been selling these things for two years. I guess I should say that I’ve been selling them two years. You’ve been selling them even longer. You must be really surprised.”
“Yes and no. I’ve been selling them but it’s not like I’ve been eating them. We didn’t eat them today and now that I think about it I can’t remember the last time I did eat any.”
“Yeah, but at trade shows-“
“We don’t eat them at trade shows. No one ever eats their own food at trade shows. I don’t even eat other people’s chicken strips at trade shows. I eat the white-chocolate and raspberry scones. I eat the chicken sausages. I eat the new kinds of apples.”
“Last time they had those Pink Lady apples. Wow!”
“My point is that we don’t eat our product on a regular basis so we have no idea how it tastes. Maybe they’ve been nasty for the last two years and we just didn’t know about it.”
“If they taste so bad, why do so many people buy them?”
“Because they’re cheap. The cooks at Chandler Elementary said they love the chicken strips because they get the kids to eat more vegetables.”
“Geez, I had the peas and they were like gravel.”
“You should have had the corn. At least, we could chew it.”
“Well, nobody told me to get the corn. That would have been a friendly thing to do, by the way. The little girls were too busy telling me about all the life-changing events their pets had experienced to have time to tell me what I should and shouldn’t get. If I hadn’t been trying not to listen to a dog’s hysterectomy, I wouldn’t have known about the sloppy Joes either.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“ So what are we going to do?”
“About what?”
“About the chicken strips? Are we going to keep selling them?”
“I suppose. Why wouldn’t we?”
“Hello? Because everyone thinks they’re nasty. Because little kids would rather eat peas that are like rocks than eat the chicken strips.”
“Maybe they’re not that way everywhere. Maybe some cooks know how to do them right.”
“And maybe I’m Santa Claus. How many guys did you talk to?”
“Is that fifteen schools then?”
“No, it’s probably about ten schools.”
“They were bad everywhere?”
“We don’t really know. Everybody else was like us. Some kid warned them off the chicken strips and they figured the kids would know. Maybe the chicken strips were fine at those schools and maybe they weren’t. Nobody wanted to push their luck so we don’t know.”
“I don’t think I can sell them if they’re that bad.”
“I don’t want to sell something that’s going to make a bunch of people sick.”
“Nobody said anything about making people sick. All anybody is claiming is that they don’t taste good. Maybe they just don’t taste good to kids”
“I don’t wanna do it anyway.”
“You’re the company’s conscience now? The guy who wanted me to break into a stranger’s office.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that any more either.”
“It’s over.”
“How what?”
“How did it get to be over?”
“It’s really simple. It’s over because I killed him.”
“You killed him? How?”
“Geez, Clement.” Jeff pushed his chair back, pulled out the bottom left drawer, shoved the files to the back and rested his feet on top of the rack. “I followed your advice and beat him to death with a shoe. I guess it was actually a boot. Is one of those Doc Marten’s considered a boot or a shoe? Anyway that’s what I used.”
Clement walked around the desk and shoved Jeff’s chair further back. Jeff’s feet thudded to the floor. Clement stuck his finger in Jeff’s face. “You lousy son of a gun! Why?”
“It’s just like you said. I couldn’t stand the idea that somebody else had been with Mari before I was. I went over there and confronted him about last night and he laughed in my face. I wrenched one of his boots off and beat him to death with it. Or is it a shoe?”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boot or a shoe. What matters is that you killed another human being. You went over there and deliberately took the life of someone else.” He walked back to his own side of the desk and dropped into the chair. “You know what else doesn’t matter? Whether or not you want to keep selling chicken strips. That doesn’t matter because even if you don’t go to jail I can’t work with you any more.” He picked up the Red Bull can and rolled it between his palms. “You really did it? You really beat him to death?”
“Of course I did. You’ve known me for two years. Do you think I would come in here and lie and tell you I killed someone if I didn’t.”
Clement had dropped the can back onto the desk and was now rocking in his chair. “I don’t know. I don’t think so but then I never thought you’d kill someone either.”
Jeff sipped his energy drink and watched his friend. He counted under his breath. When he reached one-hundred-twenty, he said, “Clement, it’s all right.”
“Clement, it’s really all right.”
“How can it be?”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“You just told me you killed him.”
“I told you that but it wasn’t true. I just wanted you to lay off me. I didn’t know you’d take it so hard. Then when you did I figured I’d better tell you the truth.”
“You didn’t know I’d take it so hard? Jeff, he’s a person.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know him.”
“It doesn’t matter if I know him or not. What? Are you thinking if you beat someone to death and I don’t know them or I’ve never seen a picture of them then it’s fine.”
“I don’t know if I think you’re crazier now or you were crazier when I believed you’d killed him. I’ve gotta get out of here for a while.”
“Clement, can’t you see it’s okay?”
“How is this okay?”
“I didn’t really kill him. Nobody’s dead. We can go on selling chicken strips or whatever together.”
“How will we do that, Jeff?”
“Same way as always. Trade show booths, cold-calling, leads from the boss or from people we meet- the usual.”
“But we did those things as a team. Don’t you get it? How are we going to be a team now? How can I trust you?”
“You trust the people that make the chicken strips.”
“That’s different.”
“How is that different? For years we’ve been telling people the chicken strips were good and now it turns out that’s not true. For two years you’ve been thinking I was an okay guy and then for two minutes you thought I killed somebody and now you know that’s not true either. Yeah, I lied to you. For two minutes and then I told the truth. The Rockin’ Rooster people have been lying to us for two years.”
“Jeff, shut up! I have to get out of here and think.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Probably not today. I’ve had some pretty big shocks today.”
“It’s gonna be okay. We’ll find something else to sell. We’ll find something that’s really good, something kids like. Yeah, you wanna find a different job. That only makes sense. We can still be friends though. That doesn’t have to change, right?”
“Jeff, let go of my arm. I said I’d be back but you’re not helping.”
“Call me tonight. Will you call me?”
“Okay. Later. Probably. Okay, for sure. I just gotta get out.” Clement heard the heel of Jeff’s shoe scrape as it left the floor and returned to the desk drawer. When he looked back, both shoes were back in place and Jeff was reading the Business section of the morning’s paper.

Mari was waiting by Clement’s car. “You don’t understand how scared I am.”
“No, you don’t understand how scared you should be. You need to get out of town and you need to do it fast.”
“Why? I wanted you to talk to Jeff about Aaron.”
“Yeah well, it’s too late for that. Get in.” Clement walked around to the passenger’s side and unlocked the door. He looked back at the building. Mari reached across to unlock the driver’s door and he climbed in and pressed the switch re-locking both doors. Mari had removed a pencil from her purse and she was tapping the eraser end rhythmically against her teeth. “I might as well tell you that there’s no point in my talking to Jeff about Aaron when Jeff has already talked to Aaron.”
Mari dropped the pencil and covered her mouth with her hands. “I can’t believe he’d do that.”
“I wouldn’t go believing everything just yet. He told me that he confronted him about last night and that Aaron laughed at him.”
“I told you he would.”
“He said he lost his temper after that and beat him to death.”
“Then he said he didn’t kill him. That’s why you’ve got to get out of here. If anyone figures out what you were working on and thinks Aaron might have been working with you and you decided not to share or they think he was holding something over you, you’ll be the first suspect. That’s if he’s dead. If he’s not dead and Jeff believes there really is something still going on between the two of you, he’ll have a lot of questions for you. Just a tip: he doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a long conversation that requires a lot of patience.”
“So what do I do?”
“Do you have relatives in a different part of the country? Not like your parents but somebody you’ve never really talked about. Do you have anybody living somewhere Jeff can’t imagine you’d want to go?”
“I’ve got an uncle who-“
“No. I don’t wanna know. Take as little as you can stand to and get the hell out of town. Wherever you’re going there are stores and you can buy things. The more you leave behind the less suspicious it will look when Jeff gets home tonight.”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I read. It’s what some of us do instead of going to parties and drinking too much.”
“I said I was sorry.” Mari picked up the pencil and put it back into her purse.
“Yeah, you did. Maybe I should be sorry too.” Clement took the two pieces of paper from his pocket and handed them to her. “Take these with you too.” She opened a zippered compartment, tucked the papers into it, and zipped it again. She reached for the door handle and Clement took her elbow. “Were you still seeing Aaron?”
“Sometimes. But not last night and not in the way you mean. A couple of times a week, he’d come by work and we’d have lunch in the food court. Two old friends eating and talking in a public place in full view of mothers and fathers and aunties and grandmothers.”
“Jeff likes me because I’m cute. He likes me because I’m goofy and he doesn’t have to pay too much attention to what I’m saying because it was probably on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or the cover of ‘People’ and, if he misses my saying it, he can watch the show tomorrow night or read the magazine and it’s all good. He doesn’t expect a lot from me and sometimes that’s nice because I don’t have to work at it.”
“But you still saw Aaron. Why?”
“Because Aaron is smart.” She sighed. “Was smart. He knew I was smart and he liked that about me. I’m not just a girl who likes shoes and acts like a klutz around lots of glass bottles. Aaron understood that.”
“So why Jeff?”
“Aaron wanted me to be smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes it took more energy than I had.”
“You’re wrong about Aaron.”
“He didn’t want you to be smart all the time. If he had, you two would have stopped seeing each other when you hooked up with Jeff.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She sighed again and made a second attempt at the door handle. He pressed the switch to unlock her door.
“Mari, be smart this time.”
“Get the hell out of here.” He went to her side and opened the door. She ran to her car, stopping halfway between the two cars to blow him a kiss, and Clement was glad the only window in the office faced the brick wall.

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