Isaac comes out of the southwest exit of the shopping mall and there — right there in the very front row of the parking lot — is the largest pickup truck he’s ever seen.
Mega cab, height-suspension, four oversized rear wheels, two front, it has one of those trays on the back for transporting dead deer or — judging by the truck’s size — dead bear, and while it would have been tight, the truck could have squeezed into one space. But no, the jackass of a driver had decided to take up two spaces, the center of the massive Dodge Ram straddling the distinct white-painted line.
The two spaces the Ram occupies are next to several handicapped spots, and for a second as Isaac steps off the curb, a Macy’s bag hanging from each hand, he’s almost convinced the asshole has used one of those too. His own car is parked farther away, almost diagonal to the truck, and as he approaches he finds himself shaking his head, gritting his teeth.
The pickup’s back window is covered with a large red Dodge Ram decal. A black and white sticker on the left rear bumper states KEEP HONKING, I’M RELOADING. A red and yellow sticker on the right rear bumper proclaims HELLO, I’M YOUR NEW DICTATOR. GET USED TO IT.
Two teenagers are headed his way. Both wear baggy jeans and leather jackets. One’s smoking a cigarette, the other’s texting on his cell phone, and neither of them seems to notice the pickup until they’re only a few feet away. Then the punk with the cigarette and long black hair says, “What the fuck?” and the other punk, the one on his cell phone and a silver stud pierced just below his lower lip, looks up.
“What a fuckin’ douchebag,” Lip-Ring mutters. He glances at Isaac but there’s nothing in his glance, they’re just strangers.
Long Hair flicks his cigarette away. He says something about slashing the asshole’s tires. This earns a laugh from his friend, and then they’re walking again, passing Isaac and his two bags full of slacks and shirts and ties, the culmination of three weeks of looking for and finally finding a new job.
He walks to his car in a kind of daze, his body working on autopilot. He can barely hear the surge of traffic on the highway less than three hundred yards away.
A woman carrying a child passes him, the little girl asking her mother the same question — “What happens then? What happens then? What happens then?” — and the woman saying nothing. The little girl has on one black shoe; the other she grasps in her small hand. Isaac turns and watches them, thinking about the little girl he and Kaylee never had.
The woman and her daughter step up onto the curb where the two punks are standing, Long Hair finishing his cigarette. The little girl, probably still asking her never-ending question, drops her shoe. Neither the child nor the mother seems to notice. But Lip-Ring does. Without thought he reaches down, grabs the shoe, and calls out to the woman.
Moments later Isaac is wrapped in the metallic embrace of his Civic. The Macy’s bags are in the backseat. The engine is started. From where he’s parked he has a good view of the Dodge Ram, maybe thirty yards away. It’s almost seven o’clock, the sun already clocked out for the day, the temperature dropping, and he tells himself the reason he hasn’t left yet is to give the engine some time to warm up. But five minutes pass and he keeps watching the truck. He thinks about Kaylee, about what she would say. How the driver using two spaces like that is disrespectful. How it’s wrong. How something should be done about it.
Someone beeps behind him. A minivan is waiting, its turn signal flashing.
He backs out, heads for the exit — but then pulls into an empty space.
The Ram is somewhere behind him now. But Isaac can still see it. He pictures everyone who’s come and gone from the mall, the older people who have trouble walking, the pregnant women, even that young woman carrying her daughter. It’s just one space the truck has wasted, yes, but still it would have made a difference.
The interior of his car is a mess. He’d always had trouble keeping it clean — something Kaylee had constantly bugged him about, just another block in his tower of failures, apparently — but since the divorce it has gotten worse. Gum wrappers everywhere, empty bottles of Poland Spring, movie ticket stubs, junk mail, CD jewel cases, magazines, even a grease-stained personal pan pizza box from the pizzeria two blocks down from his new apartment. But somehow he has no solid scraps of paper to write on. Instead he tears off a nice-sized chunk from one of the Macy’s bags. On it he writes Why don’t you try using three spaces next time, asshole? His hands tremble so badly he goes through four more ad hoc chunks of paper before it becomes legible.
In the end he takes out the asshole part, thinking it too harsh, his conscience holding him back despite the fact this is an insurrection of sorts, a simple man going up against a self-proclaimed dictator.
He folds the note, drives the Civic around to where the pickup’s parked, and shoves the gear into PARK. He gets out, looking back and forth as he does, becoming more and more certain with each passing second that the driver will appear. That he — or she — will see Isaac slip the note under the wiper, and who is to say what will happen then?
But there’s nobody around. Not even mall security driving down the lanes with its yellow flashing lights.
Isaac doesn’t hesitate — he slips the note in its place against the windshield, then quickly returns to the relative safety of his car. The smart thing to do now is just leave, go home, push the entire incident out of his mind. And he means to do those things, he really does, but as he drives he finds himself parking in an open space, maybe fifty yards away, aimed just so he has a good view of the pickup. It’s nearly seven-thirty now, the sky completely black, but the glow of the parking lot lights is enough to see by.
He turns off the car, leans his head back against his seat, and waits.
He doesn’t wait long. Ten, fifteen minutes at the most, watching people come and go from the mall — that young mother and her daughter headed back to their car, the mother carrying a pink bag from Victoria’s Secret, the daughter asleep with her head against her mother’s shoulder — and then watching a white Ford Taurus with MALL SECURITY printed on the driver’s- and passenger’s-side doors circle twice, both times passing the pickup and doing nothing about it all, not even tapping its brakes.
Then, just as he’s about to give up, turn the car back on and leave, the dictator himself appears.
Despite the distance it’s clear the man is bald and built like professional wrestler. He’s alone, carrying a few small bags. He unlocks and opens the pickup’s door. The dome light comes on, illuminating his broad face. He puts the bags inside, starts to climb in, but then stops. Sees what’s sticking between the windshield and the wiper.
Isaac’s hands now trembling, he takes out his cell phone and starts dialing Kaylee’s number, his eyes never leaving the dictator.
As the man reaches for the note, Isaac listens to the rings. He pictures Kaylee at home in the living room, reading a book, or maybe she’s at the dining room table, grading papers while Pachelbel plays quietly from the Bose. Everything in that house he can picture — the TV, the kitchen table, the armoire in the bedroom, even the blue floral design running along the walls of the upstairs hallway — because it’s mostly all his. Had been his before the divorce, before he lost everything, even his job.
The phone is working on its fourth ring when the dictator looks up from the note. He glances around the parking lot at all the other cars, as if expecting the culprit to be close by watching. It’s enough to make Isaac smile, watching this jerk, this asshole, this cocksucker, and in his ear the phone stops ringing and Kaylee says, “Hello?”
And like that Isaac doesn’t have a voice.
Kaylee, he wants to say, you won’t believe what I just did, but before he can even make a sound he spots Long Hair and Lip-Ring.
They’re coming out into the parking lot, through the same two doors they’d entered. From twenty yards away, Long Hair lights a cigarette, while Lip-Ring starts yelling something at the pickup driver.
“Hello?” Kaylee says a third time, her impatience rising, and Isaac finds his voice, says, “Kaylee, don’t hang up.”
“Listen, I just did something. Something that … ”
But his attention is diverted by the two punks, barely eighteen, who probably have shitty jobs that barely pay minimum wage, who are nothing but peasants in this new world order confronting the dictator to his face. The dictator holding the note up to them. Lip-Ring laughing, looking at his friend, saying something. Then turning his attention back to the dictator, motioning at the truck, shaking his head, spitting a loogie at the ground.
“Isaac,” Kaylee says in his ear with a sigh. “You’ve been so good at not calling for the longest time. Why do you have to ruin it now? Why?”
His gaze is glued on the scene happening fifty yards away: the two punks and the giant. Lip-Ring spitting again, starting to walk away, followed by his friend, and giving the dictator the finger. And the dictator, out of nowhere, grabbing Lip-Ring and pulling him back.
He watches as the dictator spins Lip-Ring around, smashes him in the face, drops him to the ground. He watches Long Hair, cigarette still between his lips, shout something.
“Isaac, are you there?”
He watches Long Hair move forward but then hesitate when the dictator comes at him. He watches Long Hair flick his cigarette at the giant, the cherry hitting the pickup driver in the face, but it does nothing to slow him, only makes him more furious, the dictator grabbing Long Hair and clubbing him once in the nose.
“Isaac, what are you doing?”
He starts to say something, makes some kind of noise, but that’s all, that’s it, and he just watches as the dictator first throws Long Hair to the ground, then goes over and kicks Lip-Ring again. He starts to turn away, back to his pickup, but stops once more and turns back, gives Lip-Ring another couple of kicks before bending down, saying something, spitting his own loogie into the kid’s face.
Other people have come out of the mall, Isaac notices, people who just stand by the glass doors and watch. Nobody moving to help, nobody even pulling out of their cell phone to dial 911.
Then the dictator is back in his pickup, the engine started and the headlights lit. As he backs out of the two spaces his window comes down. He pokes his head out, says something to both of the punks as they slowly pick themselves up from the cold asphalt.
In his ear, Kaylee sighs again. “Isaac, don’t call me again. I mean it. Next time I’ll … just don’t.”
The phone clicks. Isaac barely notices. He barely even notices as the dictator tosses Isaac’s crumpled note at the two punks — both on their feet now, one of them coughing up blood — and speeds away. Instead he’s seeing the night Kaylee first kicked him out. The night he tried pleading with her. He’s seeing the look in her eyes as she shook her head, the look in her eyes when she told him it was over, and then the finality of it all when she shut the door in his face.