Making Amends, page 1
Jamie Feldon woke up one cool Monday morning in April and decided to change his life.
The night before, he’d fallen asleep on the couch, thinking about a sitcom he’d just watched. It was great, really kick-ass. Most TV comedies were just plain stupid: twenty-five-year-olds tossing out one-liners, then mugging for the camera while the Laugh sign goosed the audience to make noise.
No, this show was different. The hero was a guy who’d had an Oh-Jesus moment or something and was making amends for everything bad that he’d done in his life. Each episode, he’d track down somebody he’d screwed over or hurt and apologize and make it up to them.
Pretty damn sharp.
Jamie’d lain on the couch, mesmerized by the show, laughing and once or twice even crying, which was something he never did.
You can believe it, real tears.
He’d thought about that show for hours until, still dressed, he’d fallen asleep.
Now, at seven-thirty A.M., the forty-two-year-old rolled over and rubbed his face, feeling the creases left by the corduroy slipcover. He squinted hard and studied what sat beside him on the coffee table: half a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon, an overflowing ashtray, and a bag of popcorn with a bunch of unpopped old maids inside; the micro-wave was on its way out.
Swinging his feet to the floor, Jamie pulled the remote control out from under him, the smell of sweat and unwashed clothes wafting around him. He wrinkled his nose, then wiped it on the sleeve of his pale-blue dress shirt. The TV set was still on but quiet; he’d hit the mute button in his sleep. On the screen, an early morning talk-show host was silently moving his lips. He seemed real sincere. A picture flashed on-two Asian kids holding bowls of rice. They were happy. Back to the host. He now looked happy too.
Jamie shut the set off. It crackled as the screen went black.
He stretched and felt his belly pressing his waistband. He figured the Big Macs-for-lunch, pizza-for-dinner diet he’d been on lately was finally catching up. His head throbbed with the drumbeat of a marching band.
He happened to glance at the mail, dumped on the floor the other day. He hadn’t looked at it then. He now saw that the letter on top was from the family court. What now? he wondered sourly. He’d had a problem-wasn’t his fault-and had missed picking up his son last month. The ex’d made a big stink about it. Maybe she was trying to modify visitation. What a bitch. Or maybe it was something else. Was he late with the maintenance or the child-support check? He couldn’t remember. He didn’t know what the hell she had to complain about, though, even if he was a little late. Christ, she got fifty-six percent of his salary. (Though that wasn’t exactly a gold mine; as a claims agent for a small insurance agency, Jamie made squat.)
He eased forward and cradled his aching head, crowned with an unruly fringe of thinning red hair, lost in his depression, the relentless troubles.The words that popped into his mind were “the bottom.”
That’s where I am. I’ve hit bottom…
And just like the night before, watching that TV sitcom, tears welled in his eyes.
Sitting here, in his shabby two-bedroom apartment, the graying walls decorated with stains and scuff marks, some of them dating back to when he moved in four years ago, Jamie couldn’t get that show out of his thoughts: the guy making amends for all the bad things in his past.
Then he began considering the offenses in his own life: fellow workers, his brother, ex-bosses, girlfriends, students at his community college, his ex-wife, his mother, even kids in his grade school.
Pettiness, cheating, insults, and-just like the hero of the TV show-even a few crimes.
His initial reaction was to offer excuses.
It wasn’t so bad, it was an accident, everybody acts that way, everybody cheats from time to time…
But then he stopped cold.
Furious with himself. Excuses, excuses, excuses.
Instinctively he reached for the whisky.
Then, as if he was watching himself from a distance-viewing himself on a TV screen-he saw his arm slow.
Then it stopped.
No, my friend, that’s not the way it’s going to be this time.
He was going to change. Just like that guy on TV, he’d look back over his life, he’d make a list of all the bad things. And he’d set them right.
Jamie rose unsteadily, picked up the liquor, and poured it down the kitchen sink. He returned to the living room and eyed his cigarettes. Well, he knew he couldn’t give them up, not completely. But he was going to limit himself to ten a day… Wait, no, five. And he’d never smoke before noon. That was reasonable. That was mature.
He staggered into the bathroom and took a fiercely hot shower, then a freezing one. He toweled off and walked into his kitchenette, had half a bagel with no butter, and coffee without cream.
It was a very different Jamie Feldon who stepped from his apartment into the bright New England morning twenty minutes later, virtually sauntering to the parking lot. He dropped into the seat of his battered Toyota, started the engine, and headed for Route 128, which would take him to his office, twenty miles north of Boston. Normally the congestion drove him crazy. But today, he hardly noticed it. He was thinking about the possibility of a future real different from the disaster his life had been. He could actually foresee being content, being happy.
And yet, Jamie realized sitting at his desk later that day, it might be easy to work up the determination to stick to your moral convictions, but there were practical issues to consider, logistical problems.
In the TV show, for instance, the hero had spent a half-hour or so coming up with a list of people he’d offended or hurt.
But that was fiction. In real life, coming up with a list of offenses would take a lot of work. So at quitting time, he went to his boss and asked for the rest of the week off.
The chunky, disheveled manager swung back and forth slowly in his old office chair. He clearly wasn’t happy with the idea. But Jamie was determined to stick to his plan, so he added, “I’m talking without pay, Mr. Logan.”
“Without…” The boss was working to get his head around this idea.
The words were sinking in, but Logan still seemed uncertain, maybe wondering if Jamie was scheming-hoping the boss would say, Naw, it’s okay, I’ll pay you anyway.
Jamie said sincerely, “I mean it, Mr. Logan, really. Something personal’s come up and I really need the time.”
“No. But there’re a few people need my help.”
“Yeah, you doing good deeds?” Logan laughed.
“Something like that.”
“Well, you find somebody to cover for you, yeah, then I guess it’s all right.”
“Thanks, Mr. Logan. I appreciate it. I really do.”
As he left he glanced back and noticed his boss studying him with a perplexed smile-as if he was looking at a brand-new Jamie Feldon.
Returning home that night, Jamie called around until he found a temp worker who was familiar with the company. He arranged for the man to start the next morning as a replacement.
On Tuesday, Jamie woke early, showered, dressed, and ate a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk. Then he cleaned his kitchen table off and went to work. A pad of yellow paper in front of him, he began the list. It wasn’t easy, compiling all the bad things in your life. Some were hard to deal with-he felt so much shame about them. Some, he wasn’t sure if they’d actually occurred. Were they figments of his imagination, dreams, a result of the booze?
But something stiffened within him when he thought that.
No, he thought angrily. Either you do this right or you don’t do it at all. He’d include the smallest infractions, as well as the most serious.
He worked for two days straight and finally came up with a list of forty-three incidents. Then he spent another day identifying the people involved and finding out their most recent addresses. Some he knew, others required detective work. Using the phone book, directory assistance, and his computer, as well as actually pounding the pavement, he managed to get at least a lead to nearly everybody.
By Thursday night, Jamie was finished with the list and he celebrated with a tall glass of Arizona iced tea, mint-flavored, and a cigarette. Before he headed off to bed, though, he considered another question: Should he start with the older offenses, or the newest?
Jamie debated this for some time and decided that he’d start with the most recent. He was worried that he’d get bogged down finding people from decades ago, and he was eager to get his new life underway.
So, the most recent.
Who was first?
A glance at the list. The name on the top was Charles Vaughn, Lincoln.
The man awoke on Friday morning with the Memory.
This had happened nearly every day since the incident a month and a half ago.
The Memory was there when he awoke, and it was there when he fell asleep. And it popped up all by itself a couple of times during the day, too.
It was one of those things you try to forget, but the harder you try the more you relive it.
Then your gut twists, your palms grow clammy, and a chill pall of dread fills you. Anger too.
You hope that time will take care of it. And probably that’ll happen eventually, but like when you’re wracked with the flu, you just can’t imagine you’ll ever feel better.
Charles Vaughn had a good life. He was a senior sales manager for a large Internet software company. He’d gotten his MBA at New York University and had played with the big boys in the Wall Street finance world for a long time, then moved to Bean Town to join a startup. A year ago he jumped to his present company. He was tough, he played hardball (but never screwing around with the heavy-hitters, the IRS or the SEC), and he did well. Now, at forty-nine, he knew what the real world was about: doing a good job, being invaluable to your customers-and, just as important, if not more, to your boss-and paying attention to details. Looking over your shoulder, too-making millions and making enemies go hand in hand.
He’d moved up through the ranks of the company fast and had a shot at being president in the next few years.
The businessman had a beautiful home in Lincoln, a wife who was a successful realtor, and two kids headed for good colleges in the next couple of years. He had his health.
Everything about his life seemed perfect.
And it would have been, except for the goddamn Memory. It just wouldn’t leave him alone.
What happened was this: Vaughn and his wife and daughter made the mistake of spending St. Patrick’s Day at that tourist trap of stores and restaurants in Boston, Faneuil Hall, along with, of course, about a billion other people. Just as they were about to head home, his daughter remembered she needed to get a birthday present for her friend.
“We’re out of time on the meter,” Vaughn pointed out.
“Dad, it’s, like, what? A quarter?”
They’d been shopping for two hours, and only now she remembered the present? Vaughn sighed. “I’ll be in the car.”
“We’ll just be a minute.” His daughter and wife disappeared back inside. Vaughn pumped another quarter into the meter and climbed into the car. He started the engine and cranked up the heater to cut through the infamous Boston spring chill.
Of course, it wasn’t “a minute” at all. In fact, twenty of them rolled by without the two ladies surfacing. Vaughn sat back and was thinking about a man at work, a rival salesman who was making a move on some accounts that were up for grabs and that Vaughn really wanted. The rival wasn’t as good a salesman, but he knew the tech side of the product better than any other employee, except the programmers themselves. Vaughn’d have to come up with some plan to stop him. He was considering what he could do when he heard a honk. He glanced into the street and saw a driver in a car pausing next to him. The man had a pudgy face and was about Vaughn’s age, maybe a little younger.
He said something.
Vaughn shook his head and opened his passenger window. “What’s that?”
“You leaving?” Gesturing at the parking space.
“Not just yet,” Vaughn replied with a smile. “Waiting for the wife.”
Which any man would understand was humorous shorthand for: It could be five minutes, could be an hour.
But the guy in the battered car didn’t smile. “Just pull out and wait for her up there. Double-park.”
Vaughn blinked at the man’s bluntness. “Rather not. She and my daughter are expecting me here.”
“I’m not saying drive to the Cape. Just pull up a car or two. You’re leaving anyway.”
“I’m not sure how long they’ll be.”
“It can’t be that long. Your engine’s running, isn’t it?”
Vaughn’s face grew red; he was angry and uneasy. “Think I’d rather wait here.” He shut the engine off.
“Oh, that was cute,” the man snapped. He seemed drunk.
St. Patrick’s Day… piss-poor excuse for a holiday.
Vaughn turned away and rolled up the window. He glanced at the shops, hoping he’d see his wife and daughter.
The other driver shouted something else, which Vaughn couldn’t hear. He stared at the control panel of his Acura, thinking that if he ignored the guy he’d go away.
Come on, he thought to his family, growing angry at them for putting him in this position.
It was then that he glanced toward his right, into the street, and saw that the door on the battered car was open. Where-
A rush of motion from the sidewalk. Vaughn’s car door was jerked open before he could reach the door-lock button.
The driver was leaning down, directly in Vaughn’s face. With a steam of drunken, smoky breath between them, the man said, “Listen up, asshole. I don’t need anybody to dis me like that. The hell you think you are?”
Vaughn fixed his eyes on the scruffy man. Not in great shape, but big. Both scared and angry, Vaughn said, “I’m not leaving until my family’s here. Live with it.”
“Live with it? I’ll give you something to live with.” He flicked away a cigarette and ran his key along the side of the Acura, scraping off a line of paint.
“That’s it!” Vaughn pulled his cell phone from his pocket, hit 9-1-1.
A police dispatcher came on immediately. “This is nine-one-one. What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“I’m being attacked. Please send somebody-”
“You prick,” the assailant muttered and reached for him, but Vaughn leaned back into the car.
“Your name, sir?” the dispatcher asked. “What’s your address?”
“Charles Vaughn… I live in Lincoln but I’m in my car at Faneuil Hall, near Williams-Sonoma. He’s drunk, he’s attacking me. I-”
The big man lunged forward, snatched the phone away, and flung it to the sidewalk, where it shattered. Bystanders jumped back, though most stayed close-to watch whatever was going to happen next. A couple of drunk teenagers laughed and started chanting, “Fight, fight, fight.”
The man gripped Vaughn’s jacket and tried to pull him out of the car.
“Get off me!” Vaughn gripped the wheel and the men played tug of war until a siren sounded nearby, getting closer.
The assailant, his face red with rage, let go and stood frozen for a moment, as if he was w
Hands shaking, breath ticking with the fright, Vaughn felt weak with fear and dread.
The police arrived and took a statement, made a note of the incident and the damage to the car. Vaughn was giving them what information he could remember when another thought occurred to him. His voice faded.
“What, sir?” an officer asked, noticing the businessman’s troubled face.
“He heard me give nine-one-one my name. And where I lived. The town, I mean. Do you think he’ll try to find me to get even?”
The police didn’t seem concerned. “Road rage, or parking rage, whatever, it never lasts very long. I don’t think you’re in any danger.”
“Besides,” one officer added, nodding at the damage to the paint, “looks like he already did get even.”
The police talked to passersby-with less enthusiasm than Vaughn would have liked-but nobody had gotten the man’s tag number-or was willing to admit it if they had. Then another call came in on their radio-another fight in progress.
“St. Paddy’s Day,” one of the officers spat out, shaking his head. They hurried off.
“You okay?” one of the bystanders asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Vaughn said, not feeling the least bit okay. He ran his hand across the long scratch in the paint. He kept replaying the incident. Had it been his fault? Should he have given the guy the space? Of course not. But how had he sounded? Was he abrupt, insulting? He hadn’t thought so, certainly hadn’t meant to be.
Finally his wife and daughter returned from the hall, toting several small bags. They noticed the damage to the car and the pieces of Vaughn’s cell phone sitting in the backseat.
“What happened, honey?”
He explained to them.
“Oh, Dad, no! Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just get in.”
He locked the doors and drove away fast. On the turnpike Vaughn checked the rearview mirror every few seconds. But he saw no sign of the attacker’s car. His wife and daughter chatted away as if nothing had happened. Vaughn was quiet, upset about the incident. And the anger-at them and at himself-wasn’t going away.
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