“I know the comic strip was due last week,” Chris said, dropping the phone as he stepped over a pile of dirty laundry. Cursing, he picked up the phone.
“…so why don’t I have it? Why didn’t you even call?” asked John Firbrand, his boss.
Chris looked up as his girlfriend Tabitha motioned to him “Do you want coffee?” and he nodded.
“Is it Firby?” she asked, using his pet name for his boss as she handed him a mug.
He grabbed it, nodding again, as she planted a kiss on his forehead. Tabitha rolled her eyes and mouthed “Why does he call so early?” as she disappeared into the bathroom to get dressed.
“…when your work is late, the illustrator’s time table gets all screwed up, Chris.”
“I can’t help that, John. I mean, isn’t that his job?”
“Her job,” Firby said.
“Okay, her job.” Chris sipped out of the coffee mug and sat down. “What’s the big deal? I’ll have the stuff to you in a few days.”
“That only gives the illustrator 24 hours to do her part,” John said. “This is getting out of hand, Chris. It’s unprofessional.”
“The illustrator wouldn’t even have a job without me writing the column, right?”
There was silence. Then John’s voice came over the phone at him. “Chris, write this address down.”
“345 Pioneer Road-“
“Hold on – I don’t have anything here to write with –“
“Get a pen and paper. Now.”
Something in Firby’s tone made Chris scramble to find a pen. There was one on the floor near the cat, so he grabbed it as well as a Home Depot circular. Then he jotted down the address.
“I want you to meet the illustrator.”
“John, this is stupid. I don’t see why-“
“ 7 p.m. tonight. Sharp. “
“I’ve got a column to write.”
“Be there – or you’re fired, Chris.”
The dial tone blared at him as he opened his mouth to speak. Cursing again, Chris tossed the cell phone on top of one of the laundry piles and stared at the piece of paper. This place was a half hour away and from the name of the street, it was in a part of town he wouldn’t want to be near after dark.
But this was the first time Firby ever hung up on him. As he shuffled toward the kitchen to refill his mug, he glanced up at the clock. It was only 8:30 a.m. Maybe he should try to write something today.
As Chris gunned his old Saturn down the highway around 7 p.m., he looked for the exit for Pioneer Road. It was near the subsidized housing area. He knew because he did an interview there years ago for a student paper. He found the sign and followed the exit onto Pioneer Road.
A huge pothole almost swallowed the front of his car. Chris turned his steering wheel and just missed hitting a hooker who was parading down the sidewalk, her jewelry glittering in the headlights of his car.
“Watch where you’re going!” she shouted, jumping back. “These people, they drive through here like-“
“Sorry,” Chris mumbled, blinking his eyes and trying to see ahead of him. The street was dark and empty, except for a few scattered groups of teens. He rolled down his window and could smell the pot in the air.
There was more graffiti, if that was possible, than there had been years ago , on the side of the subsidized apartment complex. He shook his head as he drove past, then saw the number on the front of the main building.
That couldn’t be. He looked down at the scrap of paper. 345 Pioneer Road, Apartment 101. Damn.
He squeezed the Saturn into a free spot about a block away, checking to make sure it was locked three times, then jogged back toward the front of the complex.
“Who you running from?” a voice asked out of a crowd of huddled teens.
“You afraid of us?” another asked.
Chris glanced over. They all wore red hoodies. Some were black, some white and a few looked as if they weren’t even teenagers yet. He didn’t have time to say anything and there wasn’t much he could say. He was afraid. He was running. Maybe some of it had something to do with being afraid of them, but most of it was about just being afraid. He hadn’t quite figured out exactly why yet.
So he kept jogging until he reached the front door. It was locked with a card entry system, but there was a panel where you could buzz apartments. He scanned the numbers in the dark until he found 101 and hit the button.
A soft female voice answered. “Yeah?”
Crap. He didn’t know the name of the person he was visiting. “Hi, I’m Chris. I’m supposed to meet you.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute and wondered if she was going to let him in or not. He was starting to feel chilly. The buzzer sounded and the voice said “Pull on the door! Go down the hall to your right.”
It was like being in college again, visiting another dorm at night and having to search for someone’s room, he told himself as he passed two guys who looked like linebackers in the lobby. He made his way down a long hallway, reminding himself to breathe and noting the numbers on the steel blue doors that were chipped showing gray underneath. 105, 103, 101.
He stopped. The door was shut so he knocked, forgetting it was steel and hurting his right hand. He cupped it under his left armpit as the door slowly opened and he saw – no one.
Until he looked down. Seated in a power chair was a thin woman dressed in a blue sweater and skirt.
“You made it,” she said. “Hurry up and get inside before someone mugs you.”
Chris looked down the hall, then stepped inside her apartment, following her wheelchair as the door shut loudly behind him. “Kind of dangerous, the way that door closes.”
“I like it,” she said, turning her wheelchair around. “Makes me feel secure. So. You’re the famous Chris. I’m Hannah, your illustrator. Just call me Quick Draw.”
Chris started to laugh, but saw she wasn’t. So he said nothing, just looked around. They were in her living room. There was a small table set up in the corner where she worked, full of brushes and paints. He saw sketches of his character Jake in different poses on the wall around her work area.
“So tell me, Chris, why your column isn’t ready this time.”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t think of anything. I’ll work on it. I’ll have it done as soon as I can.”
“When? Tomorrow? The next day? The day after? The very last possible moment it’s due?”
“Hey, I’m sorry. It’s not so easy thinking of ideas column after column.”
“Ever heard of staying a column ahead?” she asked. “Do you know how little I get paid to draw your column?”
He didn’t. In fact, he never thought about that.
“Peanuts. No offense to Charles Schultz.” Hannah sighed. “Look, Chris, if you can’t get your act together, as much as I need the paltry money they pay me, I’m going to quit the job. You can find another illustrator. John keeps telling me it’ll change the look of the comic strip and he wanted me to tell you before I did it, but-“
“Wait. You’re thinking of quitting just because I’m sometimes late with the column?”
“You’re always late. You know, you don’t appreciate what you’ve got.”
Chris looked around her desk. Jake was everywhere, almost alive. Sketches of him running, walking down the street, tripping over his neighbor’s skateboard were piled around her desk. He walked over and picked up a few sketches of Jake. “I like how you draw him. Jake, I mean.”
“I really like Jake,” Hannah said. “Maybe more than you do. I mean, what are you doing to him lately?”
“I don’t know,” Chris said.
“So where does that leave us?” Hannah asked.
The two of them looked at each other for a moment and then, suddenly they were laughing. It seemed funny, funnier than anything that had happened in a long time, to be talking about Jake, a cartoon character, so seriously.
“Maybe I ought to just nix him,” Chris said.
“Great. Kill the meal ticket.” Hannah shook her head. “Why don’t we just work on this together?”
So they brainstormed. Hannah threw out ideas and sketched while Chris watched, nodding, at first. Suddenly he found himself tossing in ideas. In two hours they finished columns for the next month.
Chris was feeling great when he left Hannah’s apartment. So when he saw that the windshield on his car was broken, he stopped short. He started to curse but instead jogged back to the apartment complex and rang apartment 101.
“Yeah? Forget something?” Hannah said.
“It’s me,” Chris said. “My windshield’s broken.”
There was a silence. “Bummer,” said Hannah. “But hey it’s material.”
He chuckled. “I guesso. Good night then.” Chris walked back to his car, opened the door and got in. Having a hole in his windshield really wasn’t that bad, he thought, turning the key.
At least not as bad as what he had been doing to Jake.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan