Casualties of the Vainglorious

by Kerry Donoghue  


Thursday


Walter ran a hand over the shellacked perfection of his hair. Yes. The Vaseline gleamed on his front teeth, keeping his lips off his gums. With everything in order up top, he smoothed his fingers down his shirt and made sure the horse was in the barn below.

“Thirty seconds,’ Albert warned.  

“Am I okay?’ Walter asked.  

Jackie rushed over. “Not yet.’

Walter panicked while she powdered the sheen from his forehead. Did he look chunky? And where were his note cards?

“Twenty seconds.’

He dodged Jackie’s brush. “Not too much.’ He didn’t want excess foundation clinging to his jowls like he was the fifth Golden Girl.  

“Ten seconds.’

Walter grabbed the fluorescent green Zipper 2020 vacuum. It was heavier than he expected and he worried lifting it would make him even sweatier. “Why didn’t anyone tell me how heavy this thing would be?’

Albert pointed at him, so Walter exhaled into his trusted powerwatt smile. His note cards might be missing, but he could go off the cuff like a regular Johnny Carson. “Welcome back to the Home Shopping Network, folks. Ever wished you could suck away all the garbage in your life?’  

***

“That was so cool, Dad. Twelve hundred vacuums! I watched the whole thing.’  

“Thanks, champ.’ In his dressing room, Walter scrutinized his profile while he chatted on the phone with his son, Ash. “Just another day at the office.’

“Sure, with five million people watching,’ Ash said.  

Actually, it was only half a million. “How was school today?’  

“It was okay. And yes, I finished all my homework.’  

Walter smiled. Ash watched his segments after middle school each day, charting how much his father had sold and if he’d broken any personal bests. Walter loved Ash’s phone calls, especially after a good day’s sell. It made him feel like he was finally doing something right.  

“Mom’s home now,’ Ash said. “I’ll see you tonight and we’ll do some Monopoly? I need to practice before Saturday.’

Walter flinched. Ash had qualified for the Western Youth Monopoly Championships up in Charlotte and wanted both parents with him, which meant they’d all be flying from Tampa together. Which also meant Walter would be on vacation with his ex-wife, something they hadn’t done since their honeymoon in the Outer Banks twelve years ago. And since Walter and Simone had been broke during most of their marriage, it would be their first family trip together, a fact that both exhilarated and debilitated him. He’d been doing extra sit-ups every morning for the past month, loading up on spinach at dinner. He was looking good and feeling confident. He was also fully prepared (Princess Bride quote and then a face-grabbing kiss) if Simone happened to suggest getting back together.

“I can’t wait. See you soon, little man.’

“Hey, I’m already five-six, Dad,’ Ash said. “I’ll be bigger than you soon enough.’  

***  

Walter wrote down the official grand total on a note card so he wouldn’t forget it: twelve hundred and thirty-two vacuums!!!! He added a happy face and three stars. It was a stunning new personal record. And just in time to ask for his contract to be renewed on Monday.  

“Devotion should be rewarded,’ Walter would say to kick off his yearly review. Pop had used that very line on Ma whenever he wanted to host the next poker night and it never failed.  

Walter tucked the card into his wallet. Between alimony and legal fees and having to rent a condo, money had been tight after the divorce. If he could lock down another three-year contract, he could start saving for his retirement. Plus he could finally take Ash on a road trip to Mount Rushmore–the wall of giants! And after selling twelve hundred vacuums, wasn’t he a giant in his own right, too? It was time for the man who hosted, nay, dominated, the primo shift to assert himself.  

Scoring the coveted daytime slot three years ago made Walter feel like he’d won an arm-wrestling match. At the time, Simone had just put the kibosh on their marriage. Right when he’d been on the toughest shift, too: pushing juicers on insomniacs and hoarders from midnight until four in the morning. But after his record topaz sales during Gem-a-palooza, the network thought he could be a real hit with stay-at-home moms. Sure enough, he’d knocked the ratings out of the park during the Summer Purse Blowout and then again during Coin-tasia.  

“You’ve got that gentleman’s appeal, Walter,’ his boss Ethan had said. “It makes the ladies want to buy more.’  

Like he was Tom Selleck! And Ethan would know: he was fourteen years younger than Walter and wore a newsboy cap to work every day. So bold.  

Walter took the compliment to heart, repeating it to himself whenever he woke up feeling lonely. Which was pretty often. A gangly mess in junior high, two hundred pounds straining against his prom cummerbund, divorced now, Walter felt like a set of golf clubs that just wouldn’t sell. But deep down, he knew that’s why he was a good salesman: he wasn’t any different from the housewives who called in. Everyone just wanted to be noticed.  

Which got him pondering the future. Here he was, fifty-one, slim, and slinging vacuums on cable television at record rates. He could still jog without taping his knees, his sideburns looked hip, and he’d been practicing a dance move he could do while holding a plate of shrimp at the holiday party. He was feeling witty, classy, roosting at the top where he belonged! And if the numbers showed women loved him, who was he to argue with math?

With some time before the all-staff meeting, Walter practiced emoting in his mirror. Here I am, joyful that you’re ordering a mixer for your mother. Now I’m surprised, but happy to learn you’re calling in for a second time today, you mischievous minx. He’d made it a daily habit to test different postures and ensure he was working his best angles. He also did twenty chin thrusts to keep a tight neck.  

Then he saw it. Walter leaned closer and pawed his hair. White, white, white, like the very breath of the reaper icing his follicles. My God, he was only fifty-one!

Jackie knocked. “Good hustle today, Walt,’ she said, setting up her manicure station.  

“Thanks,’ he said. As soon as Jackie looked down, he returned to fixating on his grays. When had his father gone gray? A meticulous man, Pop had used travel scissors to perfect the angles of his moustache every Saturday morning.

“It takes two things to be a real man,’ Pop would say. “A good shave and a beautiful woman.’  

So every morning when he was four, Walter climbed a stack of phone books and stood at the sink next to Pop. Careful and precise, he dragged a red toy razor across his own cheeks, mimicking his father. Then they’d slap their faces with aftershave. Walter still punctuated every morning with Old Spice, a tradition he couldn’t wait to teach Ash.  

He soaked his fingertips in the warm soapy water. Was that a liver spot on his hand?

“Everything all right?’ Jackie asked.

“What’s the best way to deal with this?’ He pointed to his hair.  

“Hide it. Everyone does.’

Walter frowned. “Hats look silly on me.’

She stared at him. “No, you can fix it with a little color.’

“Absolutely not. I refuse to hit the beds!’ Walter had stopped tanning last year because he didn’t want to get skin cancer and pass away before Ash got his driver’s permit.  

“Relax. You just need to dye. They’ll fix you up at the salon.’  

“Well, I’m certainly not made of money. What do you do?’

She sighed. “Go to the drugstore.’ While she buffed his nails, she listed the different brands he could buy.

“Excellent.’ Walter studied his reflection in the gleaming half-moons of his fingernails. Was it waxing? Waning? Either way, it was strange to see himself so small.  

Albert ducked in the dressing room. “Ready for the meeting?’

And then an idea began to burn. They only had all-hands meetings when something big was about to happen. Could it finally be his promotion? Were they beating him to the punch? Walter reminded himself he must appear humbled, yet surprised. Plus, there might be jelly doughnuts.  

The conference room was stuffed with everyone from the camera team to catering. He waved to the ones he knew and smiled at the others, but most people seemed like they were waiting for Grandma’s funeral to begin. Ethan sat at the head of the table, fidgeting. He wasn’t wearing his cap or even a smile. Walter’s stomach lurched. That better not mean he’d have to start pushing Tupperware. Plastic housewares would end him. How could anyone possibly make them sound special? Well, if anyone could, it’d be Walter. That was the challenge to being on live television: It forced you to think right there on the spot, like you could get pantsed at any second.    

“Folks, we’ve got unsettling news,’ Ethan said.  

“Is the coffee machine broken again?’ Walter quipped. He waited for giggles, but the room felt strangely airless.  

“I’m sorry to announce that the network has been bought out.’

Jackie gasped. “What does that mean?’

“Sadly, most of us will be Sprout employees on Monday.’

Walter looked around, his coworkers gaping. Sprout Entertainment was their biggest rival, a network that had secured the reality TV sector with an onslaught of basset-eyed sob stories vying for singing supremacy. Rather than selling anything live, Sprout looped late-night infomercials for abdominal exercise machines. Their hosts were breasty young blondes.  

“In these envelopes are your reassignments,’ Ethan said as the HR lady placed manila envelopes in front of each employee. “This is a real shock, even to me.’

Jackie began to bawl.    

“You’ll have to clean out your offices and dressing rooms by the end of the day. Again, I’m so sorry, but you can blame the bastards at Sprout.’

As the lead daytime host, Walter knew he should demonstrate leadership and sympathy. “I’m very sorry this is happening to you all. If there’s anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask.’ He closed his eyes and lowered his head.  

“Open your eyes, Walter,’ Jackie said. “We’re not alone.’

“That’s so true, Jackie. You are not alone.’

“No,’ Albert muttered. “Take a look.’

When Walter opened his eyes, he was greeted by an envelope. He popped up in the conference chair. By the time he saw “retained by HSN’ with “administrative role’ next to a pay rate that was half of what he currently earned, Walter knew his mouth would drive while his brain rode shotgun. “Oh, come now. This is a mistake.’

“Unfortunately, Sprout doesn’t think so,’ Ethan said.  

“I’m certain everyone who’s staying would disagree.’  

Ethan kneaded his temples. “Don’t make this worse, Walter.’

“What?’  

“Sprout’s not taking everyone.’

“Well, who else isn’t going? Jackie?’

“You. Sprout’s taking everyone but you.’  

Walter stood. “That’s silly. How am I supposed to do my segments?’

“There won’t be any. You’re going to be our new head consultant in Customer Service.’  

Walter fumbled for his accomplishments, but his hands were too shaky to grab his wallet. “I sold more than twelve hundred vacuums today. I’ve been here for years. I sweat through my shirt working so hard.’ He opened his coat to reveal the wet rings blooming under his armpits. “Wait, wait.’ Searching for the balloons and knowing grins, Walter stood tall to appear thinner on camera. “Where are they?’  

“Who?’

“The prank crew! Before you give me my promotion?’  

“Jesus, there’s no promotion.’

“But devotion should be rewarded! I deserve a big raise.’

“We all do,’ Jackie cried.  “This isn’t about you, Walter.’  

Walter scanned his coworkers’ faces. They’d stopped crying and most of them were shaking their heads.

“You’re right. It’s about my son, who’s too young to feed and clothe himself. What should I tell him?’ Walter reached for the phone in the middle of the table. “In fact, why don’t we call him and let him know right now?’ He dialed Ash’s cell phone number.

“I didn’t have a choice,’ Ethan said. “The future is with Sprout.’  

“For Pete’s sake, please tell me being demoted to some dipshit admin role at the unmarketable age of fifty-one is a joke.’

“Dad?’ a small voice called from the speakerphone.  

“Ash?’ Walter couldn’t figure out which button would mute their conversation. “Sorry, kiddo, we’ve got the wrong number here.’  

“It’s the light blue one,’ Ethan hissed.

“Why are you talking like that, Dad?’  

There were two different blue buttons. Walter pushed the top one. The volume increased. “Everything’s fine, champ. I’ll call you later tonight, all right?’  

“You’re scaring me–’  

The dial tone echoed loud and flat from the speakerphone.  

“Happy now?’ Ethan asked.

“No.’ Walter said. “I quit.’  

***

An hour later, Walter wandered the drug store aisles, taking deep breaths. He was an industry giant! He would handle his unemployment, just like he’d handled his divorce. He imagined himself with a thick moustache, carefree in a Hawaiian shirt and hopping into a red Ferrari. Feeling more confident, he grabbed a bottle of Old Spice for Ash.  

Walter considered boxes of hair dye. Why let your gray get in the way? one brand asked. He didn’t have an answer. But the lumberjack on front, with his winter tan and big-game hunter grin, seemed like he might know. And for only six dollars. Walter studied the instructions. His hair was the color of potting soil, which made him a True Brown on the box’s color scale. But was he more Chestnut? Coffee? Copper? He’d never thought of his hair color in relation to nuts or metals. How does anyone know these things? Should he know these things?  

“Could you excuse me, miss?’ he asked a nearby clerk.

The girl, enrobed in enough eyeliner to make Cleopatra jealous, exhaled a sigh of such magnitude that Walter instantly recalled season twenty-nine of Days of Our Lives. Scowling, she worked a blue knot of gum, appearing to count the seconds until she could huff paint fumes with her friends in the parking lot.

“Whoa,’ Walter said, getting a close look at her. He hadn’t meant to say it aloud, but her features jutted like a sidewalk crack he’d just tripped over. “Wrong color,’ he said, shaking the box as he backed away. “My mistake.’

A woman shrieked behind him. “Walter! Owen! Wilkinson!’  

Walter automatically flashed his power-watt grin. “Yes?’

The store pharmacist strode toward him like a bull to the cape. “I bought a Tiffany-style lamp from you last month.’  

“Wonderful,’ he said. “And how do you like it?’

“You were so right. The multicolored shade really warms up my reading corner. My spaniels and I can’t thank you enough.’

Walter didn’t remember saying that, but it certainly sounded clever. He tried to appear bashful.  

“I’m glad,’ he said, glancing at her name tag. “While I’ve got your attention, Marla, could you do me a favor?’ He enjoyed meeting strangers–making someone laugh felt like a high five from himself to himself for being so suave. Walter also kept fifteen signed headshots in his glove box, just in case. “Which shade would look best on my ugly mug?’

“With your looks, you could do anything,’ Marla said, beaming.  

Walter grinned. She was attractive, maybe in her early forties, and although she could stand to lose twenty pounds, she still had a pretty good face.

“I don’t mean to be forward,’ she said, “but I adore you. I watch you every day, and my garage is filled with things from your segment. My husband hates you for it.’

“It’s my good fortune that people like you care.’

“You’re really something, Walter. You could roll a turd in powdered sugar and sell it as a donut. I’d eat it.’

He flinched. “Oh?’

“I’d choose Chestnut for you. A yummy, thick brown.’ Marla closed her eyes, drifting into an intimate moment. He panicked.

“Chestnut it is. Thank you very much.’ If she was flirting, it was exactly why dating scared him. He hadn’t done it in years, and he was awed by people who dated regularly, like on Sprout’s boozy dating shows, the couples half-naked in hot tubs while the water churned with chlamydia and regret. Their sloppy seductions disgusted him, but also made him jealous. Walter had rarely dated when he was younger, and he couldn’t believe his luck when someone as beautiful as Simone had given him her real phone number at the supermarket that day. Now, he often fretted, open-eyed in the night, about how he’d die and if he’d be alone when it happened.  

“Enjoy your new light,’ he said.

“You know I will.’  

Walter swore her tongue did a teeny cobra flicker as he hustled to the cashier. But, he had fans! And with fans, even the creepy ones, he could still be the giant Ash needed.  

***

Squirting brown dye along his hairline, Walter was careful not to stain his collar. He was determined to look handsome for their family vacation. Mysterious, even. And definitely five years younger.  

Walter had custody of Ash on the weekends, so every Thursday evening at six, Simone dropped Ash at Walter’s apartment where they’d eat Sloppy Joes, watch The Simpsons, and talk about Ash’s Young Entrepreneur’s club. Walter cherished his weekly chance to be a dad.  

The doorbell chimed while he finished blow-drying his hair. Walter whirled hairspray around his head, flashed a grin in the mirror, and scurried to the front door. Simone and Ash gawked at him.

“Wow,’ Ash said.  

“Looks good, Walt,’ Simone said.  

He considered his ex-wife. Throughout the ten years of their marriage, Simone had revealed an unfortunate affinity for Utah cult couture: lots of dumpy floral dresses and a stockpile of rose water. Since the divorce, though, she’d raised her hemlines and traded petunias for cleavage. She stood smiling, zippered into a tight green dress. Simone looked like a stack of hundred dollar bills. Though she worked as a pastry chef at a hotel downtown, her skin-flick outfits made him wonder what else she was doing. And why did she smell like musk now?

“Where are you off to tonight?’ Walter asked.

“Paolo’s surprising me for our six-month anniversary.’

“He’s still around?’

“Be nice,’ she said eyeing him. “We’re happy.’  

“Paolo’s cool, Dad.’

Walter turned to pull his key out of the lock so they couldn’t see his face break. “Well, I’m glad you like my cool new ‘do.’

And with that, he officially ambered himself as prehistoric. He was pretty sure he’d snapped his fingers when he said it, too. Oh, he could just die. Walter had cringed at several memories throughout his life, but the sour cherry on top had been when Simone demanded a divorce. They’d been bickering for months, fighting the same three fights that couples have when they refuse to admit they were strangers at the altar: how to spend money, how to talk to each other from different planets, and how much time between the sheets was important each week (or month, if someone had yet another headache).

“I may regret marrying you,’ Simone had growled when she stormed Chipotle to serve him with papers on his lunch break, “but I don’t regret our little boy. I won’t let you ruin that relationship, too.’

“I’m not trying to ruin anything,’ he’d said. “I still love you.’  

“Let’s keep it clean: joint custody, no drama.’

“Of course. Just promise you won’t take him away from me. Please.’

She dabbed her eyes. “I won’t. He looks up to you so much.’

Walter pictured his son, skinny arms outstretched for a hug, his silly trapezoid of a smile. Ash’s laugh was the best sound in the world. Walter teared at the thought of losing him. “Will you sit with me and hash this out?’    

Simone shook her head. “I know you’re a good man. But we can’t force something that’s not right.’

“Soul mates fight. It happens.’  

“You’re not seeing things clearly, Walter.’ She placed the paperwork next to his grilled chicken salad and then walked out.  

Walter had felt like he’d been sucker punched in a dream only to wake up with a real shiner. After Simone served him, they vowed they would never fight in front of Ash. Then, weeks later, after Ash witnessed a dinnertime battle about splitting the Charlie Chaplin DVDs, one of Simone’s employees delivered an elegant two-tiered cake to the set. Simone had anchored handmade roses along the edges just like their wedding cake, but instead of white, they were asphalt black. At the top was a bride figurine, arms raised in victory. Below that, a crimson trail led down to the groom, plunged headfirst into a sugary pool of red. She’d also taken the time to etch Suck It in her elegant calligraphy.

This public display of anger had been humiliating. In front of all his friends and potential lovers! How long had it taken her to make? Was there poison filling inside? When he lunged to throw it away, his thumb accidentally scraped the edge. She always had been such a talented baker. He licked his fingertip. As soon as the buttercream touched his tongue, he decided that if he were going to be poisoned, he’d at least like to die with something sweet on his lips. So he ate the entire top tier in the privacy of his dressing room. When he woke up the next morning and realized he hadn’t died, he decided to relinquish his anger.

Walter gestured to his living room. “Want to stay?’ He’d filled a new vase with glass pebbles and a tall silk orchid, proof he could decorate just fine without her.  

“I can’t. But I brought treats.’ She handed him a box of homemade carrot ginger muffins.

The goodies were healthy, so obviously she’d noticed he’d trimmed down. Which means she must’ve been checking him out. But did she think he didn’t have enough money to buy breakfast?

“Big news,’ his mouth said. “I’ve got an interview with Sprout tomorrow.’

“Sprout? Your mortal enemy?’

“Yep. I figured why not give HSN a run for their money?’ He watched the lie parachute from his mouth.

“Good for you, Walt.’

“It’s a gamble, but I could collect quite a bit more.’  

She looked impressed. “That’s wonderful. It’s great to see you so excited.’

“Thanks,’ he said. “Are you ready for North Carolina? It’s been quite a while since we’ve been there.’  

“Can we go to the Outer Banks?’ Ash asked.  

“I wish, champ.’ Walter studied Simone. “It’d be nice to see that again.’  

“No, it’s too far,’ she said, kissing Ash. “Make sure you practice tonight. I’ll see you both Saturday.’ As she gave Walter a side-hug, he breathed into her hair. She smelled like warm honey, so he envisioned a brigade of vindictive skunks to clear his mind while she drove away.

“What was that phone call about today, Dad?’ Ash asked. “It was weird.’

“I’m sorry you had to hear that work talk. They’re making some changes, but this guy’s going to be a-okay.’

“But aren’t you the most important one there?’

Walter had never loved his son more. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a trick up my sleeve.’ He smiled.  

“I can’t believe you might work at Sprout! They have the best shows.’

Walter winced. “Let’s not say anything to Mom, though.’  

“Why?’

“I don’t want to worry her. Just wait until it’s all settled.’ Walter tried to keep his voice light so Ash wouldn’t think he hated Simone. He didn’t. It was just that he couldn’t believe he was a divorcé now. After twelve happy–well, at least tolerable–years of marriage.

Inside the apartment, Ash dropped his backpack on a TV tray.  

“How’s the Monopoly going?’ Walter asked.

“Good. I got a flyer for you.’ Ash pulled out a wrinkled yellow paper, blasted with the words Western Division Youth Monopoly Championship Finals! Brought to you on Channel 2!  “I can’t believe I might be on TV! You’ll have to give me some tips.’

“I’d love that.’  

“And Mom bought me a new shirt to wear.’

Walter cued his powerwatt smile. “Fantastic. I’m looking forward to it.’ He rifled through the drugstore bag. “I got something for you, too.’

“What’s this for?’ Ash asked, studying the aftershave.

Walter pointed to the jagged black trail fuzzing above Ash’s mouth. “Looks like it’s time for you to start shaving. I can show you.’

“Mom already bought me an electric shaver.’

“Do you know how to use it?’

“Yeah. Paolo helped me.’  

“Oh. Well, I could teach you how to use a razor.’  

“I like Paolo’s shaver.’

“Cool!’ Walter swallowed his devastation. “It’s here if you want it.’ He pointed to the Monopoly board. “Now why don’t you show me what you’re really made of?’

Ash’s face, stinging with whiteheads, lit with a hope that Walter could not deny. Ash was wading out into the teenage years, drifting further from their limited time together when Walter just wanted him close. He still remembered Ash’s very first word (appropriately “doo-doo’ during a late-night diaper change, Walter so deliriously tired he thought he was imagining it and then too deliriously happy to sleep after it). And Ash’s first tottering steps, the drooling delight on his face as he collapsed against Walter’s chest. Now his son was shuffling the Title Deeds and hotel figurines that Walter had grown up with. Pop loved Monopoly, and since he died when Ash was a toddler, Walter thought it’d be a nice surprise to tuck Pop’s heirloom board under the Christmas tree last year. Ash had been hooked ever since.

As Ash stacked the deeds, Walter studied the board. A question mark. A light bulb. A sparkling diamond.  

“What do you want to be, Dad?’

“What are the options again?’

Ash held up a miniature man posed on a bucking horse. “How about the horse guy?’

“As long as that’s not a donkey.’

“It’s not. I’ll be the Scottie.’

Walter rolled the dice and moved the horse rider over four spaces, landing on the Income Tax square.

“Okay, state your total worth, Dad.’

Walter glanced ahead to the other squares, his eyes resting on the angry glare of a figure behind bars. Underneath were the words Just Visiting.

***

Friday  

After dropping off Ash at school, Walter pulled into the Sprout parking lot, hopped up on three mugs of Yuban and Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits. He’d selected his navy suit and smeared Vaseline on his teeth: he was ready for the performance of his life. His list of accomplishments was safe inside his wallet, and although he’d nicked his neck shaving, he’d sopped it up with bits of paper towel. He was brimming with Old Spice and gentleman’s appeal.  

As he walked, he reminded himself that getting demoted was just the push he needed. It couldn’t have been easy to retire their top seller, and in a sense, they were admitting, You deserve bigger, Walter. Go, reach higher. How sad. Yet, how brave.  

“Can I help you, sir?’ the receptionist asked.  

“Yes, it’s about the Sprout merger. I am, or I was, the top-selling daytime host at the Home Shopping Network. I’m sure you know.’ He winked. “I’m interested in discussing my options with Sprout.’

“Do you have an appointment?’

“I don’t. But I’m hoping that’s where you can help.’ He slid a twenty-dollar bill across the counter. It was his lunch budget for the week, but worth the sacrifice.

“You can keep your money. Have a seat.’  

“Are you sure?’ He added a five and pushed it toward her.

“I’m certain.’

“Thank you.’ He quietly crumpled the money inside his suit pocket and sat very still.  

She spoke into her headset. Then she turned away, speaking softer. “How long?’ She removed her headset as she addressed Walter. “It’ll be a little while.’

“I’ve got all day. But I’ll let you know if I have to go to the bathroom.’ He regretted it as soon as he heard his lips say it. Grabbing a Forbes, Walter grimaced at the same millionaire’s profile until he was buzzed through the doors an hour later.  

 The conference room had exposed beams and sleek white furniture. Why hadn’t he gone for a jeans-and-sport-coat look? He must look frumpy under all that pinspotting and was just about to lift his arm and waft when a muscular man with a smooth neck entered the room.

“Jared Douglas, veep,’ he said, waving a foil-wrapped burrito. “What can we do you for?’  

Walter inhaled as they sat down. He’d memorized the reasons he should be hired in order of importance: 1) he had an expansive female fan base that would follow him with their customer loyalty and money; 2) he had seven years of on-set experience; and 3) he could hawk over twelve hundred vacuums in one shift. As a backup: 4) he did not believe in Botox but would get it if professionally required.  

“Hungry?’ Jared asked.

“No, thank you.’  

“You’ve got something on your neck there.’

Walter’s hand rushed to the cut and peeled a bloodied scrap from his skin.

“Try electric,’ Jared said.  

“Yes, I’ve heard.’

“Anyways, hit me.’  

Walter tented his trembling hands. “Look, I don’t have a ton of experience doing reality, but–’

Jared shoved the burrito in his mouth and somehow didn’t lose a single bean.  

“I need a job.’  

“Brother, I hear you. And I’m so sorry for your loss,’ Jared said, wiping his mouth. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy to pop by. But TV’s all about the reality sector. Viewers want youth and excitement, the ability to come home and judge idiots from the comfort of their own sweatpants.’ He took Walter gently by the shoulder. “I really do appreciate you thinking of us. But people can buy their purses off the internet. Come by again when you feel more comfortable doing reality.’ Opening the door, Jared steered Walter down the plush, soundless hallway, past the kitchen toward the lobby. “And grab yourself a bro-ito! Best of luck!’

Walter hurried past the receptionist, careful not to smash the burrito he’d quietly slipped in his pocket.  

***

Saturday

The next morning, taxis dodged pedestrians and roller bags outside the terminal at Tampa International. Walter huddled into a quiet corner behind a trash can while Ash stood at the curb, searching for Simone.  

“Please, Ethan,’ Walter whispered into his phone. “It was a mistake. I know that now.’  

“Do you see her, Dad?’  

Walter motioned that he needed a minute. “I’ll do anything.’ He felt his eyes burn, so he put his sunglasses on. Then he ducked deeper into the corner. “Thank you, Ethan. I really appreciate this. See you then.’ He hung up and turned back toward Ash. But he was gone.

“Ash? Champ!’  

Spinning around, Walter felt sick. Ash was gone. It was happening. He rushed through the crowd, loss pounding in his ears.  

“Have you seen a boy, twelve?’ Walter asked an older couple. “Brown hair, acne?’  

“Sorry,’ they said. “Wait, aren’t you on TV?’  

Walter ran past them, knees aching. “Ash! Where are you? Ash!’  

He’d lost the most important person in his life. His son was gone and it was his fault and his ex-wife would know he was still a failure. All his fears were coming true. He had nothing and was alone.

“Dad, relax. I’m right here.’  

Walter turned to see Simone and Ash staring at him. “What a relief.’  

“Did you think we left?’

“I was terrified.’

“We were here the whole time. Didn’t you see us?’  

“No. I’m sorry.’ He took a calming breath. “I was all wrapped up. But I’m here now.’  

“Cool. Let’s go!’ Ash said.  

Heart still pounding in his ears, followed his son and ex-wife across the terminal carpet. There they were: his family. Their first family vacation.

“Are you wearing aftershave, Ash?’ Simone whispered. “You smell like your father.’  

“I just tried it on.’    

Walter smiled.

“So how’d your meeting go?’ Simone asked when they got to the security line.  

“I hate to brag, but I knocked it out of the park.’  

“That’s fantastic,’ she said.  

“Did you rip them a new one, Dad?’  

“Language, Ash,’ Walter said. “I simply went in there and showed them who’s boss.’ He slipped off his loafers. “You should’ve seen their faces.’  

“Good, because it sounded like you were getting fired or something,’ Ash said.  

Flashing his powerwatt grin, Walter avoided Simone’s eyes. “No, no.’  

“What’s he talking about?’ Simone asked.

“They’re doing a little re-org at work. So I decided against Sprout. Think I’ll stick with what I know.’  

Simone’s eyes softened. “I’m sorry, Walter.’

As he hurried through the metal detector, a buzzer sounded with flashing red lights. The TSA agent stared him down.  

“Sir, remove your wallet. It’s still in your back pocket.’  

“My mistake.’ Walter tossed it toward the bucket, but missed, and all his credit cards spilled out, along with a toothpick, two pennies, the note card with his vacuum grand total on it, and the cropped photo of him and Simone laughing in the limo after their wedding. Walter scrambled to grab everything and when he finally stood, he struck the crown of his head on the table.

“Are you all right?’ Simone asked.

“I’m great!’

Inside the air chamber, he raised his arms like a stick-up. The slow whir of air was too weak to provide any relief to his drenched pits and he prayed Simone was too busy inspecting a hangnail or digging through her purse to notice his sweat. When the agent waved him through, Walter stepped out and discreetly mopped his face, waiting for his items to arrive on the conveyor belt.  

On the other side of the chamber, Ash hesitated. “Is it okay for me to go ahead?’ he asked.  

From a distance, Ash looked surprisingly older. Taller, more muscular. His son. The soft puff of toddler fingers reaching for his at the crosswalk. The time he choked on an ice cube at Burger King. His first Pinewood Derby. The moment Walter finally let go of the bike seat.  

He sat down, alone on a bench. “It’s okay, Ash. You can go now.’


If Kerry Donoghue were a home shopping network segment, she’d be all about Baketacular: powerless in the face of sugar, with an embarrassing predilection for Bundt cakes. She received her MFA from the University of San Francisco. Her poetry and stories have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Louisville Review, Ninth Letter, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Pinch, The Potomac Review, and The South Carolina Review. And her short story collection, Mouth, was a 2017 semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. She lives in the Bay Area with her family. When she’s supposed to be writing, she can be found stress-baking.