by Sue Ellis
Joey was strong-armed from the kitchen to the employee parking lot at Brockmeir's Pub. They hadn't even let him take his apron off. His ears drummed with each accelerated beat of his heart. The bouncer, Mike, turned and walked wordlessly back inside. Joey stood rooted in place, unable to disconnect from the halibut steaks he'd just put on the grill. They'd be ruined.
The boss wouldn't listen when Joey had tried to defend himself. He'd lost his temper and fired him because the orders were backed up. The problem was, the day cook kept messing up the walk-in cooler. He left salad dressing dripping down the sides of the gallon jars and didn't put stuff back where Joey had organized it. Not only that, he left dirty towels lying around. Joey'd had to spend more and more time disinfecting, and before he knew it, he was obsessing so bad about it, he was anxious all the time. It was all he could do to keep the orders straight in between washing his hands and every surface the food touched.
Despairing, he finally walked to the bus stop. At home, he carefully stepped across the resin-like accumulation of seed pods on his front porch. They hadn't fallen from the maple tree in October as they usually did, but had clung to the branches petrified and brittle until the morning's March wind sent them clattering across the porch like guitar picks.
The framed photo of Alice glowed beneath a small lamp in the entryway. He stopped and dusted the glass with a tissue from his pocket, a ritual he never missed, then hung his jacket on the peg.
The phone's message light blinked in the living room. Joey pressed the button and listened to the familiar voice, "Hey, Joey. Haven't heard from you in several days. I know you're busy, but give me a call. Maybe we can make time for a Starbucks."
Joey carried the phone to his favorite chair, wincing as he sat down. His right shoulder hurt like hell. He didn't feel like talking to his old man, but what if something was wrong?
"Hey, Joey. Didn't expect you to call tonight." It sounded like his dad had been half asleep in his recliner.
"Yeah, well, I got off early."
"On Saturday night?”
Joey's throat ached too much to answer.
"You there, Joey?"
"Yeah." It wasn't much more than a croak. Joey slid his pincered fingers along the military crease on the leg of his jeans, struggling for control.
"How about I come over?"
My God. His old man was seventy-eight. Joey felt guilty that he was more burden than help at this stage in his life. "Naw, I'll be alright. It's just they got fed up because I was organizing too much."
"Been taking your pills?"
"You have a lot to be proud of, Joey."
Joey didn't respond.
"Three years without booze is a long damn time."
"You got enough money to tide you over until you find another job?"
"I think so." He didn't want to worry the old man by telling him he had enough for a year if he needed it. He'd been as obsessed about saving as he was about everything else.
"If you run short, let me know."
Joey went to the kitchen and got the broom. The seed pods on the porch skittered away with each sweep, but he worked doggedly under the 40 watt lightbulb until they were completely gone.
He thought about Alice as he worked. She'd been a waitress at a restaurant where he did salad prep. They'd dated off and on for months. He thought she might have married him if he'd asked, but the truth was, he wasn't comfortable with anyone living in his house. He couldn't bring himself to tell her how bad it was, his compulsions and exhausting routines, so he'd broken up with her. No woman in her right mind would want a man who had to count the backsplash tiles before he could turn off the kitchen lights.
He put the garbage bag into the yard-waste recycle bin next to the garden shed. His hands were freezing. It was too dark to rake the yard--probably a good thing. The last time he'd worked outside at night, the neighbors had called the cops. He'd have to get up at daylight if he was going to get it perfectly cleaned up before he went to church.
He noticed it more and more, now that he was past fifty, that the ritual of his days had begun to take a bigger toll. Back in the house, he went after the Anafranil bottle in the medicine cabinet. It had been empty for a while. The medicine helped with the OCD, but it made the exhaustion worse. He guessed he was going to have to buck up and refill the prescription if it meant getting another job.
He almost had the yard raked the next morning when his Dad pulled up at the curb. He dangled a sack out the car's window at Joey.
"It's enough pills to get you by until your prescription's refilled. I had an old bottle from when you house-sat for me last year.”
"Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate it." He didn't want to bawl like he was ten-years-old. His Dad had that effect on him, though. Saw right through him and made him feel vulnerable.
"How about some company at church?"
"Sure." Joey thumbed moisture from the corners of his eyes. "Maybe we can get something to eat after."