A Thousand Miles From Home - Part 05




The place Mike took them to was a little sandwich shop in downtown Winston-Salem called Sammy’s Sammies. Don hated the name. But he had to admit that the sandwiches were incredible.

“So what do you guys like to do?” Mike asked them as they ate.

“I like to read,” Ollie responded. “I’m a big reader. I love books, I devour them any chance I get.”

“And how often is that?” Mike asked.

“Well, Mike, I’m married with two kids. So, not too often.” Ollie smiled. “Thank God for the toilet, right?”

All three of them laughed.

“What about you, Don? What makes Donald Parker tick?”

“You know, it’s funny. For me, I just like to learn. I wasn’t much of a student. I did just enough to get by. But as I get older, I’m finding that there’s just a lot about this world that I don’t know about.”

“Interesting,” said Mike.

“So yeah, I strive to learn something new, each and every day.”

“What have you learned today?” Ollie jibed.

“The day is still young, my friend. But I can tell you this, Sammy makes an excellent sandwich.”

They all laughed again.

After lunch Mike was kind enough to point out the guest parking spaces at the front of the GCS building as they pulled into the parking lot. Don would be sure to remember that in the morning to save the two of them a walk.

“By the way, don’t let what happened last night put you off of Winston-Salem,” Mike said as the pulled into his space in the GCS parking lot.

They were all in Mike’s car, a practically new Honda Crosstour. Don was riding shotgun with Ollie in the back.

“What do you mean?” Don asked.

They pulled into Mike’s space, he put the car in park, shut off the engine, and stepped out of the car. Don and Ollie followed.

“You guys didn’t see the news this morning?” Mike asked.

“I had it on, but didn’t catch all of it,” Don said. “Why, what happened?” A cold feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

“Someone was attacked late last night,” Mike said. “A vagrant. Said some guy tried to eat him.” Mike laughed.

“Eat him?” Ollie also laughed. “You got cannibals in North Carolina?”

“Apparently so,” Mike replied as they reached the building. Mike paused at the door, his hand on the door handle. “Evidently this homeless guy was sleeping on a park bench when this fella just came out of nowhere and started chewing on his leg.”

“Okay, that’s just weird,” Ollie said as Mike opened the door and held it while Don and Ollie walked into the vestibule and waited at the security doors.

“What did he look like?” Don asked, thinking of the drunk he watched the night before.

“I don’t know, a homeless guy I guess,” Mike said.

“No, the guy who tried to eat the homeless guy,” Don said as they walked through the break room.

“Oh, I don’t know. That wasn’t in the report I saw.”

“What’s up, Don?” Ollie asked. “Your brother in town?”

Both Ollie and Mike laughed. Don laughed along with them, but his heart wasn’t in it.

They arrived at the small conference room when Don asked, “So, what about this homeless guy? He okay?”

“He’s in the hospital,” Mike said. “He’d been bitten a few times, the report said that this cannibal gnawed on his leg before the homeless guy was able to fight him off. He ran through the park, screaming about zombies or something when he collided with a cop.”

“Well, I for one will make sure to stay out of the park tonight,” Ollie said with a laugh.

“You do that,” said Mike.

Don just sat. Could what happened last night have anything to do with the drunk he saw in the parking lot? Don wasn’t one to believe that everything tied together and would have been quick to dismiss the idea altogether if it wasn’t for the way that drunk made him feel last night. But maybe it wasn’t the drunk. Maybe it was just the road getting to him. Plus, there’s just something about being in a strange place in the middle of the night that can just plain rattle some people. Don never considered himself to be one of these people, but what else could it be. Zombies? A crazed cannibal cult bent on culling the homeless population of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by eating them one at a time?

The more Don thought of it, the sillier it all sounded. Random acts of violence are what they are. This was probably just a case of some meth-head on a high with nothing to do but bite people.

So Don dismissed the idea that the drunk was involved as soon as it flopped into his head.

“Okay, guys,” Mike was saying. “Staff meetings start in an hour in the training room. Until then, you guys got some free time on your hands.”

“Thanks, Mike,” both said as Mike was leaving.

“Creepy stuff, huh?” Ollie said, pulling out his phone and tapping away on the screen.

“Most definitely,” Don agreed. “I hope these badges work, I need a cigarette.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ollie replied, following him out the door. “And then I suppose I should go spend a little time with the IT guys.”

“Yeah, might be a good idea.”

The two said little more as they walked through the building to the smoking area, Ollie tapping away at his phone’s screen the entire time.

“What are you doing?” Don asked once he sat down outside and lit a cigarette.

“What?”

“You’ve been on that phone since we got on the plane yesterday, you’ve been on it for almost the entire trip. What’s going on?”

“Sally’s about to lose her first tooth.”

“So?”

“So, Susan is keeping me updated.”

“Seriously?” said Don. “She’s losing a tooth, it’s not a football game. How many updates can she give you other than letting you know when it fell out?”

“Well, we get to chatting.”

“Ah, okay.”

“I miss her.”

“I know you do.”

The two sat in silence for a time. Don smoking while Ollie tapped at his screen.

“Hey,” Ollie said after a while. “Here’s an article about that cannibal last night.”

“Oh yeah, what does it say?” Don didn’t want to know.

“Not much. Apparently the homeless guy is really sick.”

“Hmm,” Don said as he lit up another cigarette. He really didn’t care and he was hoping that Ollie would just drop it.

“Yeah, and here’s the thing, he wasn’t sick when he came in, but now he has like a high fever, and he’s delusional.”

“Hmm,” Don said again.

“Hey, don’t you want to hear this?”

“No, not really. I’m preparing for these staff meetings we have in,” Don checked his watch, “forty minutes.”

“Oh, come on. You got that down already. You’ve only done it a few dozen times.”

“Maybe, but I need to get my head right. I can’t be worrying about homeless guys and cannibals and drunk guys and all that.”

“Drunk guys?”

Don sighed, “Never mind.”

“What drunk guy?” Ollie scanned the article. “This doesn’t say anything about a drunk guy. Mike didn’t say anything about a drunk guy.”

Don sighed again. “I saw a drunk guy last night walking through the parking lot of the hotel.”

“Oh, wow,” Ollie paused, looking off into the distance as if contemplating the secrets of the universe. Then he looked up at Don, a confused look on his face. “Okay, so?”

“So nothing. It was a drunk.”

“On a Sunday night?”

“Seriously?”

“What? You don’t think that’s odd, some guy getting drunk and stumbling around a parking lot on a Sunday?”

“Again, seriously? What is this, the Fifties? People get drunk all the time, Ollie.”

“Okay, okay. I was just saying.”

They sat again in silence until Ollie stood and said, “Okay, I’m going to go drop in on my IT flunkies. I know they’ve been hiding out in their room all day, sweating the thought of my dropping by.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly what they are doing.”

“I’m feared in the IT world, yo.” Ollie said. And with that, he was gone.

Don was only alone for a moment when a man wearing a t-shirt and jeans joined him. The man looked ragged and old, but in a retired Marlboro Man kind of way. He lit up his own cigarette, which was unfiltered, and stood looking out into the back parking lot.

“So just who the hell are you supposed to be?” the man asked, his back to Don. The guy sounded like Sam Elliot, looked a little like him too.

“Uh,” Don said, “me?”

“You see anyone else out here?”

“No, no I guess I don’t. I’m Donald, Donald Parker. Most folks call me Don.”

“Don,” the man said, turning around and offering his hand, “I’m Joe. I keep things running around here.”

Don shook Joe’s hand. “So that would make you maintenance?”

“That’s what I said.”

Silence crept in and lay about them while Don finished his second cigarette. He was lighting a third when Joe spoke.

“You ain’t from around here.” It was not a question.

“No, Joe. No I’m not.”

“You’re one of them boys from Kansas, come to make the sun shines and the birds sing.” Again, it was not a question.

Don laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I would put it quite that way, but I am from Kansas.”

“Hmmm,” was the only reply Don got out of Joe.

Silence once again made it’s hushed presence known by stomping around the smoking area in such a way that brought a sense of peace and soothing calm and gentle tranquility. And just as Don was getting used to the stoic presence of Joe the Maintenance Guy, Joe flicked his cigarette out into the parking lot, turned, and left without a word, leaving Don alone once more.

And so Don sat and pondered the mystery that was Joe and smoked his last cigarette before heading back to the training room, stopping first in the break room to purchase a soda before taking a quick detour to the small conference room to grab is laptop bag.

There was a small table set up at the front of the training room next to a podium. This is where Don set up. He didn’t really need his laptop for a simple staff meeting, but in Seattle, their first stop on this trip, he’d been asked at each of three introductory staff meetings if he could show a preview of Columbus. So, Don decided from that point on to just include that in his introduction.

The podium had a laptop dock, which would be connected to the overhead projector in the ceiling, so Don docked his laptop and powered it on. He then logged into the network and accessed the internet.

Columbus was an internet based program. But it was actually housed on the company’s intranet, so only those with an official network log in ID and password could even get to Columbus’s log on screen, where they would use another log in ID and password to start the process of accessing applications for Federal Student Aid.

Ollie entered just ten minutes before the first meeting was set to start.

“What up, dog?” Ollie said, sitting at the table next to the podium.

“Stop it.”

“Stop what, yo?”

Don just sighed as Mike walked in.

“You ready to go, Don?” Mike asked.

“As ready as I’m ever going to be. I’m going to show everyone a preview of Columbus, something to quell their fears as they see how easy it is to use. Then I’ll cover the same ground I trod upon with the supervisors this morning. After that I’ll open it up to questions. These are the people that use the current system all day long, so the question and answer period will take up most of the time as there will be a lot of questions.”

“Great, I hope it goes well. Personally, I’m looking forward to Columbus, we need something that doesn’t crash for an hour at a time every other day.” Mike put his hand next the side of his mouth, speaking over the back of it conspiratorially. “I mean, it’s not like we can depend on IT to keep things working.”

“Hey!” Ollie said and Don and Mike laughed as the first people began to file in.

Andy was with them, which Don actually preferred. Get the guy in and out as soon as possible.

And then she walked in. The world stopped as she entered. Don had no idea who she was, but he wanted to know. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Everything around her blurred, making her the crystal clear center of all that Don could see. And for a moment, he swore that he could hear Dream Weaver playing.

She sat right up front. She wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, or fat, or skinny. She was, well, perfect. He hair was like a great curly brown mane that flowed from her head and down her shoulders. And her smile. Her smile almost made Don faint. She sat right up front, caught his eye, and smiled at him.

Well, that pretty much did it. Don was hooked. There wasn’t much he could do about it now.

And so, as everyone else filed in, Don quickly changed up his introduction.

Soon everyone had arrived and all forty seats were taken up while a few others stood in the back. And yet Don still couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. Don wasn’t staring at her, he’s not a creep, but as he moved about the podium, making sure that everything was ready, he kept stealing little glances at her.

Mike, as he did with the supervisors, stood in the front of the room, and once everyone was settled, introduced Don.

Don stood at the podium, cleared his throat, and began. “Good afternoon ladies and gentleman, my name is Donald Parker, and if you play right by me, you’ll find me a fair and considerate trainer. But if you cross me, you’ll find that behind this playful, boyish exterior, beats the heart of a ruthless. Sadistic. Maniac.”

The room sounded with a few giggles and laughs as Don finished paraphrasing one of his favorite lines from the Blackadder, and to his surprise and complete enjoyment, the girl in front was laughing loudest.

“Now, I know that you hate it when speakers do this, and I hate to do it myself, but I feel it’s important that I get to know you just as much as you get to know me. So, what I like to do to start these things off is that we are going to go around the room, and each of you will say your name, and then give us one fun fact about yourself that you think I should know, okay?”

People groaned.

“I’ll start. My name is Donald Parker, and I played in exactly one football game for the Kansas Jayhawks.”

Don then gestured to the first person to the right in the front row.

“Sorry, pal,” Don said as the group laughed. “You chose the wrong spot to sit.”

“Uh,” the guy stood. He was short, skinny, and looked a little like the singer from Weezer. “I’m, uh, I’m Alex Connors and uh, I once slept on a sidewalk to score tickets to see the Smashing Pumpkins.”

“Alright,” Don said. “That’s how the game is played. Next”

And so it went down the line until they reached her, the one who caught his eye.

She rose with all of the elegance of a queen. And then, just before she spoke, she flashed Don another one of those smiles that tugged playfully at his heart.

“My name is Karen Walters,” she said, her voice sounding like the strings of a harp being plucked by an angel, “and I try to learn something new every single day.”

Don was in love.

To be continued . . .

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