“Goodbye, Mr. Kayhill,” Steve Covington says as he trudges down the stairs with his heavy backpack and passes by the guidance councilor who’s walking up in the opposite direction.
“See you tomorrow,” Mr. Kayhill says, “If I don’t get sick in the mean time.” He fakes a cough into his fist and smiles on his way up. As he looks down at Steve, his one glass eye stays set in place forever.
Steve, a 24 year old, 5’8, black man with the shoulders of a lineman and the widow’s peak of a 40 year old, walks out the door to the parking lot and adjusts his backpack as he walks to his car. He navigates his hand around his overstuffed wallet in his pocket and pulls out his car keys when he sees his friend, Jeff Haunt, leaning against the trunk of his Civic. By his friend’s foot is a large box and Steve knows that this can’t be good.
“Hey, what’s up with the box, man?” Steve says, upturning his head as he gets closer to his friend.
“I’ll tell you in the car,” Haunt says, his face downturned so his stiff hair, like straw from a scarecrow, hangs down low on his strangely sweating forehead in this 50 degree weather.
Steve unlocks the car and throws his heavy bag in the back seat with one hand. He tosses his coat on the floor and wipes most of his old magazines off the seat to make room for his friend’s box, which is filled to the brim. When Haunt slides the box on top of an old issue of Writer’s Digest, Steve steals a look inside and sees a framed picture of his friend and his wife getting married at the top of the heap. Steve sees Haunt looking at him from the other side of the car with hopeless green eyes and he pulls his head out from the backseat and opens up his own door to the driver’s side. Haunt shuts the backdoor and sits quietly beside Steve in the passenger seat, so silent it’s as if he isn’t even there. In less than a second, Haunt’s mind wanders and gets lost in the playground beyond Steve’s windshield, and he wonders where his friend goes when as he gets to staring like that. Steve puts his car in reverse and drives out the parking lot and neither of them say a word to each other. Steve has been dying to know what happened ever since he heard Principal Jaffe’s grouchy, cowboy drawl demanding his friend go down to the office at fourth period.
Steve drives for awhile in silence, hitting the highway and turning on the radio only to turn it back off when he hears the same song on three different stations. He keeps looking in the rearview mirror at Haunt’s box until he can’t take it anymore.
“I don’t mean to broach, man, and you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to,” Steve says, looking over at his friend’s collar as Haunt stares out the window, “But do you mind telling me what happened today, man? If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
Haunt turns his face to him, and Steve frowns, as his friend has snot dripping out of his nose.
“You got a little,” Steve says, pointing to his own nostril, and Haunt wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve, too upset, with his cherry red cheeks and dry tears, to even care what his friend might think of this.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to pick you up tomorrow, man,” Haunt says with trembling lips.
“Why, man, what happened?” Steve asks, keeping his eyes on the road and talking to his friend like a mother might talk to their daughter who just broke up with their boyfriend, “I heard them calling you down at fourth period.”
Haunt sighs, and stares out the windshield again, and for a moment, Steve thinks his friend is going to lapse back into his daydream. But Haunt shakes his head and looks back at his friend with a face that’s more composed than it was a second ago.
“Maurice and Jaylon from 715 were fighting and they broke a computer,” Haunt says, and Steve can see his friend reliving the moment in his head, “I don’t know what else I could have done. By the time I called security, the monitor was already broken.”
“Those fucking assholes,” Steve says, shaking his head. Like Haunt, he has homeroom 715, too, and he hates them with every cell in his body. The stupid pieces of shit couldn’t tell a noun from a hole in their asses. “And what happened in his office? I heard Mrs. Davis was called down, too.”
“Yeah, that bitch,” Haunt says, shaking his head and squeezing in his face as if he’s going to sneeze, “I shouldn’t call her that, though. My wife wouldn’t like it.”
“Probably not, but you’re not with your wife now,” Steve says, patting his friend’s shoulder and thinking about the man’s wife, who is about as crazy as a Jesus freak can be, “Get it all out of you, man. Mrs. Davis is a bitch. Everybody thinks so.”
“She just sat there with her yellow notepad and kept flipping pages,” Haunt huffs, “Her and that fat piece of shit kept trying to get me to resign.”
“Please tell me you didn’t do it, though” Steve says, worried, “You wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment if you did.”
“Those assholes,” Haunt says, “I wouldn’t let them do it to me.”
“Well, that’s good,” Steve says, “They pulled that shit on Mr. Stein and he doesn’t get shit now.” Steve pauses for a moment and then says, “So, what are you going to do now? Do you have any idea?”
“What now?” Haunt says, more to himself than to Steve, “That’s the hundred thousand dollar question, what now.”
“And you severed all your ties with your previous job, right?” Steve says, hitting the brakes hard to avoid hitting another car that switches lanes without even looking, “Oh, come on, you piece of shit!” Steve yells at the car in front of him before focusing back on his friend. “I’m sorry. What was I talking about again?”
Haunt sighs and looks down at his lap, his glasses fogging up from the heat in the car. “I wish I was still young like you, man,” he says.
“Why?” Steve says, “It’s not so great. Just look at me. I could be working at a place like Entertainment Weekly and instead I’m wasting my life here at this fucking school.”
“Yeah, man, but when I was your age, I could do anything,” Haunt says, side-stepping his friend’s own problems, “I’d go right up to my old job if I was still 24 and I wouldn’t leave until they gave me my old job back. I’d even take something in the back office, if I had to.”
Haunt’s face crumples and the tears well up again. “Never get old, Steve. It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Steve says, tired of hearing his friend being such a sad sack, “You act like being young would change everything, man, but it wouldn’t, and I’m a prime example of that. I used to really care about getting the best journalism job out there but now I really couldn’t care less. As long as I can pay my internet bills, I’m happy. Well, happy enough, at least. But if you really want to go back to Wall Street, man, then do it. All you have to do is believe in yourself.”
For a brief moment, Steve sees something like a glimmer of hope in his friend’s eyes, but it disappears and turns into jaded pessimism again.
“You’ll see when you get older,” Haunt says, “When you reach a certain age, you realize that life is just a bunch of missed opportunities,” he says, “If it weren’t for Marigold, I wouldn’t have anything.”
“But you do have Marigold,” Steve says, starting to get depressed now himself, and for another brief instant, he sees a light go on in his friend’s eyes, but this too disappears after a moment.
“You know, I’ve been having these strange visions about her all day today,” Haunt says.
“What kind of visions?” Steve asks.
“Strange visions,” Haunt responds, “She was always in the shadow whenever I thought of her today.”
“Hmm,” Steve says, thinking about that, “And what about your dreams last night? Did you have any?”
“Not that I know of,” Haunt says, recollecting his thoughts, “But I’ve been daydreaming a lot today.”
“Tell me about it,” Steve says, “You’ve been in your own little world half this whole ride. We’re even almost at your house now.”
“Man,” Haunt says, and that’s all he says. He looks back down at his pants and drifts.
“What do you think Marigold’s going to say?” Steve asks, pulling onto Haunt’s street now.
“I don’t know,” Haunt says, and his face gets flush again, “I don’t think I’m going to tell her. Not today anyway.”
“You can’t keep her in the dark, man,” Steve says, pulling up into his friend’s driveway now, both of the garage doors closed.
“I know, but I don’t want to upset her anymore than she already is,” Haunt says, and he stares at the house now as if he’s never even seen it before.
“Well, whatever you do, if you ever need to call me, please don’t hesitate, man. I’m sure things will turn out alright in the end.”
“I wish I had your optimism,” Haunt says before a smile forms on his face, “You’re a good friend, Steve.”
“I live to please,” Steve says, correcting himself, “Actually, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I hate everybody.”
“You’re not as misanthropic as you think,” Haunt says, and he gets out of the car and knocks on the window of the back door for Steve to unlock it. Steve clicks the button on the side of his door and Haunt opens it.
“Thanks again, man,” Haunt says, looking in through the back door, “for listening.”
“Well, I probably did more talking than listening,” Steve says, forcing a smile as he thinks of his friend’s dismal future, “But you’re welcome.”
“Let’s keep in touch,” Haunt says.
“Definitely, man, definitely,” Steve says, and he really means it. He really intends to.
Haunt closes the door with the box itself and walks towards his front door. He digs in his pocket and takes out his keys.
As Steve puts the car in reverse, he watches his friend disappear into his house as the front screen door slams hard behind him. Steve drives down the street to the stop sign thinking of his friend, and he hopes from the bottom of his heart that everything turns out alright.