Authors: L.M. Fortin
Copyright © 2014 L.M. Fortin
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is either entirely coincidental or presented in a fictional manner and not as fact.
Cover design by Charlene Buff
To my Mom, who let me read whatever I
wanted when I was a kid.
"Let us hum." Callie was certain she had never heard more devastating words in her life. They all began to hum the familiar tune. It seemed less mournful when being hummed. Surreptitiously, without moving her head, she looked to the right at her executive director. She could see the color rising on his face. The television cameras were whirring and as soon as the pastor had said the word hum, she could see people in the crowd pulling out their cell phones and recording the moment. She estimated that this would go viral in about three minutes.
She was a professional event planner. She had the college degree to prove it. How had this happened? Details were her job. Everything else at the annual veteran's conference had run like clockwork. All two thousand attendee registrations were accurate, no one had run out of coffee at a committee meeting, the checks for the vendors were cut early and ready to hand out—she had even remembered to tell the hotel that her director liked his room stocked with Starbuck’s coffee and not some inferior brand.
The humming continued and she hummed along with everyone else in the ballroom. Had the song ever seemed so long before? She could feel the sore spot on the back of her heel where her Jimmy Choos were rubbing. At least she was dressed for success, even if the day wasn't quite turning out that way. Partnered with a smart Donna Karan gray suit, the shoes were her favorite pair, an understated black leather with just a hint of a shine to them. They had never rubbed before--maybe the sore spot had been caused by her shoes from yesterday. As conferences like this kept her on her feet from early morning to late at night, she had learned to wear different shoes every day in an attempt to minimize foot pain. Well, that would be the second thing she failed at today.
She replayed the morning in her mind. Up at five o’clock, showered, dressed, and out the door by five thirty to meet with the hotel staff and go over the events for this final day of the US Veteran's Annual Convention in Baltimore. The last breakfast of the week had been served hot and their guest speaker, one of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had arrived on time and spoken both eloquently, and with vigor, on the importance of the organization’s grassroots lobbying supporting veterans and their families.
Some speakers could be a hassle, but General Barnes had been a piece of cake from Callie’s point of view. He even drove himself, instead of coming with a chauffeur and retinue, as many 'important' speakers did. However, his presence did attract members of the press who were interested in trying to fathom national policy from his words. Callie couldn't remember a time when they had more national news staff present. That would be just her luck.
After the general had finished speaking, Bill, the executive director, as well as her boss, got up to say a few words and close the conference. Callie was onstage along with the numerous US Vets directors and support staff. The full staff was always called to the stage for this final ritual. She had grinned at her friend Mara, the legislative director, who grinned back, both of them relieved to be at the tail end of the convention.
The last thing done at every conference was honoring those who had died serving their country. Pastor Jones led the group in a prayer and then said, "Now, we will play “Taps.” "
Silence had filled the room. Callie had never realized that sheer terror could take such an immediate physical toll. Her stomach knotted and for a moment she had felt a bit dizzy. Callie looked to the back of the ballroom where her a/v guy, Bart, was shaking his head in her direction and raising his palms up in the universal symbol of ‘I can’t do anything about this.’ Who was going to care that the rest of the day, heck, that the rest of the week had went brilliantly, when the CD with “Taps” on it was languishing in her room on the twenty fourth floor?
Mercifully, the humming stopped and the song ended.
Callie's next conversation with Bill was short. He was standing in the hallway outside the ballroom. The attendees were gone now, back to their rooms to pack and begin the return trek to Spokane or Scranton or wherever they came from. The hotel staff was beginning to pile up the chairs, the stage was filled with a/v techs dismantling lights and rolling up electrical cords. Callie was always surprised that months of effort could come down in a matter of hours.
Bill’s smart phone was out and he was scrolling. His custom phone cover gleamed with a metallic red, white and blue US Vets logo. Callie thought that the eagle in the center was winking ominously at her. Bill didn't look up. "Do you know we've had more hits on our Facebook page in the last half hour than we've had in the past year? And there's been a new hashtag created #letushum that is already spawning memes of people humming versions of famous songs."
"Bill, I'm so sorry. I just forgot to give the CD to Bart. Actually, that could have been worse,” she said optimistically. “I felt that Pastor Jones sort of saved the day for us there."
Now he looked up and Callie immediately wished he’d go back to staring at his phone. His wispy brown hair, usually brushed to cover a bald spot on the top of his head stuck out at an angle and his brown eyes seemed to have deepened in color. "Really? Really?! We are a charitable veteran's organization. Our mission is to look out for veterans. We depend on donations for support and now we're a laughingstock. Look, here's someone who's taken our humming version of "Taps" and they've animated a cat to go with it."
He held up the screen to show her and as the striped tabby danced across it, she knew what he was going to say next.
Later that same day, Callie wearily got out of the taxi and headed for the elevator. Of course, it was out. So she took a grip on her bag and started the climb to the fourth floor.
When Bill said she was fired he really meant it. He wouldn’t even let her stay and clean up after the convention, instead telling her to be on the next flight back to New York. Wishing she could have done something different, Callie packed up her hotel room and caught the hotel shuttle to BWI. After numerous trips to visit the site of the convention, Callie knew there were almost hourly flights between New York and Baltimore.
She slept a bit on the short flight, but felt less rested when she woke up than if she hadn’t slept at all.
When she reached the fourth floor she found the door to her apartment unlocked and slightly ajar. Pushing the door open, she called out, “Peter, are you here?” Just to the left of the door she saw several boxes that seemed to be filled with Peter’s clothes. On the top of one box was the photo of them taken last year when they visited Coney Island together.
Peter, in his favorite Ralph Lauren navy blue and white striped sweater, was laughing as she waved cotton candy in front of his face. She always imagined him like that. White teeth, shining in a brilliant smile, dressed to the nines. That’s what she liked about him. Well, one of the things she liked about him. Blond hair and his model good looks made her feel proud and happy when they went out together. She liked showing him off.
“Callie? Is that you? I thought you weren’t getting back until day after tomorrow.” Peter sounded a bit panicked as he came out of the bedroom carrying another box. Inside, she could see what looked like his things from their shared bathroom cabinet.
Suddenly feeling like she was entering a theater during the second act, she didn’t want to explain getting fired. “There was a change of plans. If you weren’t expecting me back for two days, what are you doing here?” He was wearing a white polo and jeans, his hair in a windswept style that Callie knew took an effort to achieve such an air of casualness. Peter had had a key to her apartment for well over a year now. As he often stayed overnight or for several days he also had a drawer in the dresser and a large section of the bathroom medicine cabinet. Peter liked to take care of his skin and had an array of face creams, more so than Callie.
Peter added the box to the other ones by the door. “Let’s sit.” Although they normally sat on the couch together, Peter took the single armchair, leaving Callie to sit by herself. The sofa and chair were a matching set they had found one weekend while antique hunting in SOHO. Callie didn’t care much for antiques, but aimlessly spending time with Peter on the weekend was her favorite way to unwind from her job.
“What is this? You look like you’re moving out…”
“I didn’t mean for you to find out this way,” he said.
“Instead you meant for me to come home and find you gone? What, were you going to leave a note for me or something?” By his guilty glance to an envelope on the kitchen table, she knew that’s exactly what he planned on doing.
“I’ve met someone else. You’re always working so much and traveling that I’ve felt like we’ve been growing more distant the past few months.”
“Did you think of mentioning it to me? I didn’t mean to be working more, it’s just that we were short staffed and I was trying to fill in. If I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done.” She could hear her voice rising. “Who is she? Do I know her?”
“No. Not that it matters. All that matters is that she’s around when I need to talk to someone.”
“So you can complain about your hard day at the restaurant? Complain about not getting that callback to some off-off-off Broadway show?”
Peter stood up, stung. “She’s also not sarcastic and is 100% supportive of my dreams of being an actor. I think you just liked having a pretty face to show around—you never really cared.”
He pulled out the framed photo of them together at Coney Island and threw it on the floor. “Here, take that.” He piled his boxes on top of each other, picked them up and left, leaving the door open.
Callie sagged back on the sofa for a moment and contemplated going after him. Instead, she got up and closed the door.
Callie kicked off her shoes in the living room, not even bothering to walk the few feet to the bedroom to properly put them away. Usually, she would undress next to the closet in order to put her suit immediately on the hanger and her shoes in their appropriate shoe box. With her large array of clothing it was the only way to keep it from overwhelming her small bedroom.
In the kitchen she checked the wine rack. With its sharp corners and angled ribs it seemed more like modern art than a wine holder. Peter could have taken that with him with her blessing, she thought. But then he might have taken the wine and she was happy to see it all remain. There was at least one silver lining to this sudden break up, and it was that she remained in possession of the wine. One good point of Peter’s, along with his model good looks, was his excellent taste in wine. His work in the restaurant industry had given him an expert palate. It wasn’t that she never supported his dreams of being an actor; far from it—she had gone to every play he had a bit part in and spent many a Friday night working with him, reading his lines for that next big audition. However, those small parts and big auditions never turned into actual stardom and Callie thought his time would be better spent pursuing something for which he had a demonstrated talent. His ability to taste and identify wine put him in the upper ranks of sommeliers. But he didn’t want to take the exam. Or rather, he didn’t want to put in the study necessary to take the sommelier exam. Occasionally, she had mentioned that he should try that field. Maybe it had been more than occasionally, as Peter seemed to think she was undermining his acting career.
Peter equated serving wine with being a server and never in his mind would it be as prestigious as acting.
Dating a wine connoisseur, even if he didn’t realize it, gave one reason to buy wine gadgets. Callie pulled out a bottle of 2009 Cakebread Cellars chardonnay and put it in the wine cooler. The machine cycled cold water around the bottle so it would be cool in a minimum of time. Another thing Peter managed not to take with him.
She went into the living room and grabbed her suitcase. The shoes on the floor bothered her too much. A lost job and a broken heart were no excuse for letting the standards down. She picked up her Jimmy Choos so they could go back into their clear plastic storage box in the closet.
Sliding open the mirrored door always refreshed her. It wasn’t that she had hundreds of pairs of shoes Imelda Marcos style, but she had spent considerable time and care choosing the dozens of pairs she did have. There was a certain satisfaction to put a pair back into its particular clear plastic box and placing it back into the closet. She pretended that it was for efficiency’s sake, but to herself she knew there was a part of her psyche that relaxed when things were put back into their right place. Shopping was her stress release from work. In fact, when she thought about it, was shopping a release from work, or did she work so she would have the money to shop? This might take some thinking about.
What were all these things really worth, she wondered. She pulled her suitcase onto the bed and began unpacking.
Pulling on some Juicy Couture sweats and a pair of pink fuzzy socks, she padded back to the kitchen where her wine was appropriately cooled. She opened the bottle and poured herself a glass. Grabbing her laptop, she laid out on the couch to see what local news she had missed while she was gone.
Who was she fooling? She just wanted to surf the net and drink herself into some form of forgetfulness.
She tried to check her work email, but it looked as if Bill already had the account closed. Well, that was fast. It’s not like she murdered anyone, only embarrassed them a little.
Her personal email was surprisingly full, more so than usual. Well, surprising until she realized most of her friends had sent her clips of the humming incident or one of the videos it had spawned. Of course, they didn’t know she had been fired over this. She almost logged out in disgust, but then saw an email from her mother. Surely her mom wasn’t mocking her as well?
Her mom’s email was chatty and full of stories about community meetings and organic gardens. Callie felt the stress begin to release from her shoulders, enjoying reading about her mom’s challenges instead of wallowing in her own misery. Callie’s hometown, Skinner, Ore., was full of people just like her mom. Callie didn’t want to call them politically active, but rather they were fiercely activist, concerned about their effect on the environment and willing to take what they considered the necessary steps to make a difference. Tie dye was a must in Skinner.
Callie’s mom hadn’t started life as an activist. Instead, she had been christened Esther Irene Lange in a decidedly conservative household. A car accident when Callie was fourteen had killed her father and seriously injured her mother. After the accident, Esther rechristened herself Coral because she thought it was “natural, beautiful and constantly renewing.” Callie always managed to refrain from adding, “And being decimated by global warming,” because that really wasn’t to the point.
Coral’s new name was also a guide for how she intended to live her life from that moment on. She sold their house in town and to Callie’s teenaged dismay, had moved them to a farm where they could practice sustainable agriculture. Coral called it getting away from the rat race. Callie supposed it was at that very time that she began thinking of Skinner as a place to escape rather than a place to live.
Right now though, she thought of that craziness fondly. She hadn’t been home in over four years. That had been for the wedding of a high school friend and Callie hadn’t spent much time with her family. She wondered if Skinner still felt like the end of the universe to her. That seemed like a good place to run to and escape her current life.
Her rent was paid up and she had enough money in the bank to hold out while she looked for another job. Why not a vacation first? She didn’t have any cats or fish and now, she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Who would miss her? She picked up her cell phone and dialed her mom.
Grandma Minnie answered the land line phone in the house. “Grandma? It’s Callie.” Grandma Minnie lived with her daughter-in-law Coral. However, Grandma Minnie, a West Texas child of the Depression, wasn’t impressed by what she called the ‘hippie trappings’ of Coral’s life. The two of them shared a house in Skinner even if they didn’t share remotely close world views. Their wrangling had always driven Callie crazy.
“Callie??? Callie who? If it’s that granddaughter of mine, I see her so seldom, I’m not sure she exists anymore.” At eighty-one years old, Grandma Minnie was still sharp enough to be sarcastic.
Callie laughed. “Well, it’s not like you come out here and see me.” Callie had offered numerous times to pay for plane tickets for both her mother and grandmother to visit, but they always turned her down.
“Me in the big city? I don’t think so. I have enough trouble getting around in Skinner. I wouldn’t know what to do in New York.”
Callie asked, “Is mom there?”
“No, she’s at one of her commie, I mean, community meetings deciding the fate of the world. They seem to be arguing about whether they should build a permanent homeless camp. That’s an oxymoron to my mind,” she said, with heavy emphasis on the ‘moron’ part of the word.
“Well, I was thinking of taking a vacation. I have a little free time from work,” now that was an understatement, “and I was feeling like it would be nice to come home.”
“The guest cottage is free right now, although I don’t know how long it will remain that way. You know how your mother likes to bring home stray people she finds at community meetings. The last guy had a three foot beard that I swear had a nest of starlings living in it.”
“Well, hold the room for me. I’ll be there in the next day or two.”