John James slipped out of his office and shrugged into the old beaten Carhartt jacket he kept hidden in the closet and wove his way down through the half-lit corridors of the pre-dawn, the industrial hum of the building’s air gently ruffling his sparse hair where it curled up in tiny puffs where his ball cap met his skull. Slipping into the workers’ lounge and gently lifting a set of keys off the pegboard and walking directly out the service entrance with purpose. That is how you move through life unquestioned: you simply create the illusion of knowing what you are about and do it without a blink of hesitation. He felt his hip pocket one more time and there it was, the envelope with the latest check inside, such a small slip of paper and yet so full of portent and expectations, now the guilt climbing up the back of his spine like fleeting parasites until he redoubled his stride and kept himself moving, churning his bantam legs in an endless effort to leave his lonely mantle of responsibility behind him for just the briefest respite away from it all.
He clicked the fob until he found the honking truck, white and nondescript, like a top-notch punter recruit, hee hee hee hoo boy, he chuckled to himself, high on the endorphins of illicit freedom. He started it up and rolled through the billowing steam that comes from the earth beneath the massive complex that houses his entire existence. Traffic is beginning to beef up on Wellborn but there is no hurry. The bank he has chosen this time does not open until nine and it’s only three-quarters of an hour away. Time management. Plenty of time for the sheer and mindless joy of driving, watching the withered cotton stalks whiz by in their perfect rows, the rolling swales of pastureland dotted with spreading oaks. The immensity of the sky was bracing: gone were the scraggy horizons of his youth, slate gray clouds and smudged memories. Here were rusty old sheds, stock tanks so still and brown and tepid. He drives slowly, he has not been to this particular town yet on his bi-weekly sojourns. He has mapped them carefully, over two dozen of them, so that he doesn’t have to frequent the same locale more than once a year or so. As comprehensive as a gameplan, for better and for worse.
He parks on Main Street across from the bank with a quarter-hour to spare. People are moving along the narrow sidewalks and going in and out of the diner and he watches them through the plate glass: the oil workers and ranchers, the townsfolk. Suddenly a tinge of apprehension as he spots the Sheriff, an alumni he recognizes. He’s moving amongst the crowd like the Aggie Band: all khaki and symmetry, a mellifluous cudgel snaking through the tables, brassy and smart. He sits down at the corner table and John James goes to wait in front of the bank. Vacuous greetings and a stiff wind and the double-plate doors are unlocked and he scans the tellers intensely, gauging each one in turn by their propensity to recognize him and he settles on the second from last, Belissa.
Despite having the shortest queue, Belissa’s line is taking the longest, and isn’t that always the way when engaging in mild subterfuge? At last he reaches the window and dutifully hands her the properly-endorsed check and immediately begins to scan the room as she works. She methodically notes the signature, then the block logo catches her eye and the amount on the check catches the other one and he can see her internal struggle: the yearning to tell him she knows who he is battling with her professional restraint decades in the making. She begins to peck at her keyboard and he is momentarily relieved but then the hesitation returns and he knows she is going to break before she does and he frantically turns on his heels and turns his collar up and makes a beeline for the door and she is calling after him Coach Coach Coach Fisher your check it’s a lot of money, hon! and he’s tumbling out the door into the cool air of the sidewalk and mashing the key fob in his jeans pocket and piling into the truck and cranking the engine, speeding off just as the Sheriff comes lumbering out of the diner with a curious gaze and then he’s back on the highways, chewing up the miles back into his immense refuge of steel and concrete, his open prison where everyone knows him and everyone is afraid to speak to him, the manic inverse of the other universe he’s just tried to infiltrate, where Belissa’s three martinis deep at happy hour with a Virginia Slim dangling from the corner of her lip and telling the gals from the Snip N’ Trim all about her famous customer that morning, the check sealed carefully in a plastic sandwich bag in her purse and Honey if he wants it back he knows where to find me.
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