by J.D. Tuccille
People keep telling me that rage is a bad thing, but who would you rather be? The angry person? Or the poor fuck on the receiving end.
Tom was an angry and vindictive man. He refilled soda machines for a vending machine company, driving an enormous truck down ancient city streets that were barely wide enough to accommodate the growling behemoth. Every stop meant a line of backed-up motorists, futilely honking and cursing as Tom rolled up the flexible panels on the side of his truck and extracted heavy cases of cola, lemon-lime, root-beer, and iced-tea. The blocked cars would remain frozen in place, delayed from their intended routes, until Tom had finished with the customer's machines, reloaded the hand truck, and sent his enormous vehicle rumbling within inches of parked cars and overhanging fire escapes.
It was one of Tom's great joys in life.
One of the customers served by Tom's route was a large law firm. On his weekly run, Tom guided his truck down the narrow cobblestone street that ran adjacent to the granite-faced tower housing the firm. He piled cases of soda onto his hand truck from the stacks running the length of the vehicle planted dead-center in the road, then maneuvered the load over the uneven road surface, up over the edge of the slab sidewalk, and through the building's doors. On his way into the lobby, he caught the trailing edge of a businesswoman's rain coat with the hand truck's wheels and sent her staggering for several feet--cheering himself enormously.
Water, sugar and caramel coloring, he recited to himself on the vertical trip in the elevator. Artificial colorings, artificial flavorings and artificial sweeteners. The last was his favorite. Every day he hunted through the newspaper for the latest news about the side effects of artificial sweeteners. Cancer, liver failure, birth defects--he savored every reported ailment that could be attributed to low-calorie sugar substitutes.
"Hey Tom," the receptionist greeted him as he stepped from the elevator into the dark-paneled corridors of the venerable law firm. "How's life treatin' ya?"
"Hello Rose," Tom boomed back. "It's as great as ever."
Through the window of the lobby area could be heard a steady honking from the street below.
"Rose, I got a little something for you." He reached over the front of the receptionist's desk and set down a cold can of diet cola. "Don't tell anybody, I'm not supposed to give 'em out for free."
"Oh Tom, you're so nice."
Tom just smiled.
The hand truck made a pleasant whirring noise on its path down the carpeted corridor past spacious wood and leather-trimmed offices. Tom cocked his head for a second in the otherwise-silent corridor, then rocked his load from side to side so that the stacked cans rattled and thumped as they shifted.
The vending machine was located in a small kitchen area fully-outfitted with a sink, coffee machine, stove, microwave and refrigerator. Tom left the hand truck straddling the hallway while he unlocked the vending machine and refilled the racks. Can after can slid into place, like cartridges in a rifle magazine. Yes, that's how he liked to think of it--he was loading pop-top cartridges into a 65 cent-a-shot magazine. He laughed as he loaded the racks, making sure to wedge extra diet sodas into place.
"Hey you, buddy. Could you move your stuff?"
"Buddy, I need to get by."
Stuff? Tom thought, turning to look at the slickly coifed, sharply attired fellow in the hallway. His water, sugar, caramel coloring, artificial colorings, artificial flavorings and artificial sweeteners, stuff?
The fellow in the hallway, every inch the smart, young law associate, glared. Tom offered back a look of wide-eyed incomprehension.
"Oh Jesus," the lawyer sighed, giving up first. He extended an expensively shod foot and manicured hands and started wrestling the hand truck out of his way.
Tom looked on blankly as man and beverage grappled in the narrow passageway. Beverage seemed the sure winner when the uppermost case started to slide, threatening to crash its carbonated contents to the floor. Tom's hands shot out, steadying the case and smoothly gliding the hand truck into the kitchen area.
Red-faced from rage and exertion, the lawyer tugged at his jacket sleeves, straightened his tie, and stalked off down the hallway.
"Hey," Tom said as he passed, fishing a diet soda from a half-empty case. "Sorry about that. Have one on me."
The young lawyer, his hair no longer so perfectly placed, paused to hiss back, "I don't drink that crap.
Tom's eyes narrowed and his knuckles whitened around the can. He smiled.
On his next trip to the law firm, Tom had a diet soda ready for Rose almost as soon as he rolled his hand truck clear of the elevator.
"Rose," he said, after exchanging the usual pleasantries. "There's a fella here - one of the shysters - I think my little brother went to high school with him."
"Really? Which one?"
Tom scratched his head, reaching his fingers under the edge of the company-issued painter's cap. "He's a good-looking young guy, real slick, dark hair, a little full of himself."
Rose smiled. "Yup," she said. "Those're the guys we hired last Summer." She grabbed a soft-bound book in front of her and flipped it open on top of the reception desk. "This might help -it's a face-book of all the lawyers. We have enough coming through here that you can't keep track without a scorecard."
Tom flipped down the rows of photographs, then stopped, with one broad, callused index finger parked over a perfectly-groomed image. "Nah," he said, tapping at the identifying information under the photo. "That's the one I was thinking of, but the name is all wrong."
Rose pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. "Too bad," she said. "I was looking forward to some good high school stories."
"Oh, I dunno, Rose. I'll betcha have some good ones of your own. Still, it's too bad all right."
Tom thanked Rose for her help, and returned to business, wheeling his precarious stack of cases down the corridor. As he stepped along, he rocked his heavily-laden hand truck from side to side with greater than usual glee.
The plaque on the townhouse door said Charles Meekins, Esq., which was fitting since that was the name to which the mail stuffed through the shiny brass slot in the door was addressed, and to which the young lawyer who scooped that mail up late at night, after work, answered.
The neighborhood being what it was, and the young lawyer being who he was, the mail on any given day contained a fair sprinkling of upscale catalogues, solicitations and offers sprinkled in with the credit card bills and an occasional personal letter. One Saturday, the mail contained a contest notice on the stationary of a vending machine company.
"Congratulations," it read. As a loyal consumer of many of our fine products, you have been chosen as the no-strings attached, no-catches winner of a year's supply of . . ." Meekins paused, then winced. ". . . the diet soda of your choice."
With a single quick motion, Charles crumpled the letter. "Filthy stuff," he muttered, tossing the balled-up paper in a neat arc towards a wicker waste basket.
Across the narrow street, perched on top of a four-wheel drive that bulked almost as largely as the delivery truck that he drove during the week, Tom lowered a pair of binoculars and wiped a trace of moisture from the lenses. From his vantage point, he had a clear line of sight into Meekins' living room.
"All right, bastard," he spoke to himself. "I gave you a chance."
A plaintive honking distracted Tom, and he turned to face a solitary hatch-back, blocked from continuing along the residential one-way street by the squatting mass of Tom's truck.
Tom began to whistle.
For the next week, Tom spent the evening hours at home in his small, under-ventilated apartment plotting his course of action. He sat at a battered, linoleum-topped kitchen table, his ears stuffed with cotton to muffle the sound of the television, which as a matter of course he kept on with its volume turned just a bit too loud.
Though he dedicated the full force of his creativity to the problem of Charles Meekins, Esq., Tom felt himself drawn-up short. Distracted, he took little of his usual pleasure from work, barely going through the motions even when he loaded alternating cans of club soda and lemon-lime into the cola rack of a machine at a taxi garage.
It wasn't until Tom's next trip to the law firm that inspiration struck without warning.
"Hi, Tom," Rose's voice sang out as soon he strode into the reception area.
His spirits revived by a particularly apocalyptic article in the Health section of the morning paper, Tom held up a can of diet soda between two fingers and bobbed it in response.
"Oh, Tom, you're spoiling me."
"Never," Tom scoffed. Then he slid into a conspiratorial tone. "Some people just deserve special treatment."
Rose preened and blushed.
"Oh," she blurted as Tom placed his foot on the hand truck to tilt it back, I'm supposed to ask you to go around the long way to the machine - we're having the carpet replaced the way you usually go."
Tom, nodded and rolled his load in the requested direction. As he cleared the corner, he saw a familiar figure cross the hallway ahead and pass through a door that - from the way it swung open, then shut with a spring-loaded whine - clearly led to the men's room.
A grin spread across Tom's face as he brought the hand truck to a stop at the door of the office Meekins had just left. Moving with the moment, Tom slipped into the room and looked around. Instinctively, he headed straight for a thermos that sat on the paper-strewn desk in easy reach of the well-padded, leather-upholstered chair. Tom carefully unscrewed the top of the expensive German container, admiring the built-in siphon that allowed the contents to be dispensed one-handed. He expected a warm rush of coffee odor thinned by nuts, or herbs, or something odd that had no business being in a cup of java. Instead, he caught a whiff of something earthy and familiar.
"What the hell?" he mumbled. He dipped the little finger of his left hand into the thick liquid within and daintily licked the digit. Almost like tomato juice, but a little spicier, and lumpier. And it needed salt.
"Huh," he said in surprise. "Fucker makes his own V8." Then, after a moment. "Weirdo."
Tom gazed into the thermos in wonder, contemplating the sheer quantity of liquefied vegetables in the half-filled container, and decided that Meekins wouldn't be returning from the Men's room anytime soon. Moving quickly, he emptied the thermos' contents into a large planter by the window. As he turned away, a thought struck him, and he peered back at the dwarf tree, its soil slowly absorbing the unexpected gift.
"Cannibal," he hissed.
Tom cracked open a can from one of his cases and refilled the thermos with diet cola, pouring down the side to minimize the foam, and replaced it on the desk. Then he took a quick last look around. From the garbage, a clump of discarded letters caught his eye. On impulse, he grabbed a handful and left the office, a look of dumb innocence plastered across his face.
Wheeling the hand truck back down the hallway on its briefly interrupted course, Tom scanned the first letter he had salvaged. It was a team assignment from a community softball league. A shadow of an idea began to draw together in his mind.
As Tom turned the corner on his way to the vending machine, Meekins still hadn't emerged from the Men's room.
The warehouse where Tom was based lay in an industrial wasteland of concrete, steel and permanently-yellowed vegetation. Because of the broad and relatively empty roads, it was a favorite location for kids at play, dotted with bicycles, skateboards, and pick-up basketball games. Tom liked to swing his truck fast around the corners on the way through the area, imagining himself emerging from behind cover like some growling, prehistoric beast stalking prey.
Returned to home base, Tom backed his truck into its assigned slot, then punched his card at the time clock, slamming the thin cardboard into place with the brutal force of a guillotine blade. He stepped from the garage area into the cramped office, its fake wood paneling almost obscured by faded posters and notices.
"Hey, Tom. Good run?"
Tom skinned his lips back from his teeth and nodded. "Sure Jack, never any problems."
"That's what I count on - from you anyway. D'ya know that Billy kid ran his truck over a fucking fire hydrant?"
"Hell of a mess," Tom said, savoring an image of the scene.
"Not as big a mess as the kid's gonna be before I finish with 'im. Don't ever quit, Tom. You're the only one here I don't wanna kill."
"I'll see what I can do. Hey, is Gary around?"
"Yeah. Back on the loading dock. Close the door behind ya, wouldja?"
Tom left it open, just a crack.
Gary, the soft drink company rep, was packing to go when Tom found him. He tucked-in his shirt, over paunch and under belt, then slipped into a thread-bare suit-jacket.
"Gary, got a question for ya. Couple of my buddies are on a softball team, and they're short on uniforms and gear. I was wondering if your company sponsors teams. Ya know, ya get to put your logo . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. We do some of that. A couple of your buddies?"
"Uh huh, Joe and Tony." Tom threw out the names of two friends who, so far as he knew, had never used a bat on an inanimate object. "Some of the guys on the team are kinda uptown so it could be a natural for one of your diet . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Gary interrupted, fishing into his pocket for a set of keys. "Why not. It'd be a nice promo. I'll see what I can do for ya."
Water, sugar, and caramel coloring, Tom sang silently on the way to his car, whistling a jaunty tune in accompaniment. Artificial colorings, artificial flavorings and artificial sweeteners.
Tom devoted numerous hours to his new project over the next few weekends, with several evenings thrown in. He trailed Charles Meekins, Esq. from office, to market, to cafe. Twice, he repeated the substitution that he'd performed at the law firm, each time replacing steaming two-dollar cups of herbal tea with quick shots from a pop-top can while Meekins stepped momentarily away from a cafe table. Once, in a bar, he sent over a free soft drink, disappearing as the quarry lurched to his feet, tumbling his chair to the floor in a frantic search for the mysterious benefactor. By the time of the second switch, Meekins had acquired the gaunt, panicky look of a hunted animal. Tom decided not to press his luck. Besides, Gary told him that the new softball jerseys looked just great.
Amateur though the softball league was, it had a wide reach, embracing colonies of frustrated athletes in virtually every corner of the city. On the day of the first game between the aging college jocks of Meekins' team and the one-time high school stars from Tom's neighborhood, Tom sat in his truck, slowly drinking beer through the first five innings of the game. With the sun setting behind him, he had a clear view of the diamond and outfield through an intervening chain-link fence. One-by-one, he crushed his empty cans in a meaty fist and carefully lobbed them from his driver-side window into the back seat of an open-topped convertible.
The team from Tom's part of town strutted in front of the bleachers, grab-assing and shifting their athletic cups with less concern for the game than for a gum-cracking cheering section. Meekins' team pretended to a more professional attitude - like a visiting bus-load of major leaguers who had decided to pitch under-hand for the day. Still, they preened before the bleachers in turn, brushing dirt from new jerseys, freshly silk-screened with a soft-drink logo.
As the sixth inning began, Tom switched to spring water, first guzzling half a bottle, then gargling most of the rest. He gulped a final mouthful, then slid from the truck and strolled towards the home bench as the second out was called in the bottom of the sixth. He was in place by the bench when a pop-fly slapped into the shortstop's glove for the third out.
As Meekins walked by, his eyes firmly fastened on the team cooler, Tom fished his hand into the sagging side pocket of his windbreaker. "How 'bout a soda," he offered in a low, even voice. He extended a moisture-beaded can of diet cola emblazoned with the same logo as that featured on Meekins jersey. "It sure as hell beats herbal tea."
Meekins froze in place, then turned to face the delivery-man. A slow flush rose from his collar and darkened his face, followed closely by a breaking wave of comprehension.
A knowing, unpleasant grin spread across Tom's face. "Or home-made V-8."
The lawyer stood silently for a moment, swaying as if battered by a private cyclone. His lip curled and one eyelid fluttered as his lips tightened against his teeth, contrasting white against the molten-iron cast of his face.
"You son of a bitch," he finally said.
Several of Meekins' teammates looked over in surprise.
"Huh?" Tom asked. "I'm just offering you a soda."
"Diet soda. You son of a bitch."
Tom took the first punch on the chin in apparent surprise, his arms by his side as he rocked back with the force of the blow. Back-pedaling, he suffered several hits on his ribs, slapping others away from his face and neck with thick, callused hands. Tom had staggered and fallen to the ground when Meekins was dragged away by some of the jabbering mass of close-pressed bystanders.
"Jesus, Charlie. What're you doin'."
"Take it easy, Charlie. He just offered ya a drink."
"I dunno. I think he has a thing about diet soda. You shoulda seen him when the new jerseys came in."
Charles Meekins himself had a lot to say - especially to the police. "He's been following me around, changing my tea for diet soda when I wasn't looking."
"Your tea?" a stocky officer asked, his lips patiently pursed.
"And my home-made juice."
"So he broke into your home and replaced your juice with diet soda?"
"No! At the office. He fills the soda machines at the office." His eyes wide, Meekins pointed at Tom. "Ask him what he's doing here."
The officers looked over to where Tom sprawled on the ground, nursing his already-swelling jaw. "I wanted to see my local team play," Tom protested.
"It's true," a stocky, middle-aged woman said as she kneeled to offer a cloth-wrapped cold pack. "I seen 'im around the neighborhood."
Nodding thanks as he accepted the cold pack and pressed it to his chin, Tom added, "I just offered him a soda 'cause I recognized him. He coulda said no."
"What about the jerseys?" Meekins demanded, a high edge to his voice.
"What about 'em?" an officer asked.
"He must've arranged the logo on the jerseys."
Still seated on the ground, Tom offered the police and his accuser a face blissfully free of understanding. "I drive a truck," he said.
"Awright, Rocky," the stocky officer said to the lawyer, who was shaking from something other than the mild temperature. "We're gonna take you someplace where you can relax."
"Yeah," another added, talking as if to a problem child. "We'll even getcha a soda."
Tom smiled behind the cold pack as Meekins' loud protests faded in the distance.
"Tom! I was afraid we wouldn't see you again!" Rose was out from behind her desk, waving one-handed with every step, before Tom had even cleared the elevator. He pushed the fully-laden hand truck to one side and offered back a grin that was lopsided from the still-puffy jaw.
"Now Rose, ya didn't think I'd abandon ya." With a smooth gesture, he reached into the top case and fished out a cold can.
"Oh Tom, you're just the nicest guy."
As the two chatted by the elevator, a young man in well-tailored business clothes entered the lobby.
"Oh Daniel, come over here and meet Tom." Rose turned back to the delivery man. "Daniel is a new Associate." Then in a stage whisper, "they had to let Charles go, ya know."
Tom reached over and shook hands with the young lawyer, squeezing just a little too hard.
"I was sorry to hear about . . ." Daniel said, trailing off with an embarrassed loss of words.
"Eh, that's OK," Tom said. "You never know who's a nut." Then he reached his hand once more into the diet-cola case at the top of the stack. "Hey Daniel," he said, beaming his toothy grin. "Can I offer you a soda?"
Ummm. I feel somewhat ... unsettled. How about you? Had enough?