The Bottom of the Hill

Shit rolls downhill. In The Gutter, that's life. But for some folks, it's a hard lesson to learn.

The Bottom of the Hill by F. J. Gallagher

Marshall kissed his wife goodbye and slid behind the wheel of their aging Dodge Caravan. He turned the key. The engine stuttered, turned over and finally caught. The radio blared to life, along with the check-engine light.

“A federal judge this morning overturned a Portland ordinance banning individuals from panhandling along median strips in the city, calling the law a violation of free speech. Portland Mayor Thomas Parks vowed to rework the measure to bring it into line with the federal decision.

“This is about public safety. These individuals are standing out in the middle of the street on some of our city’s busiest intersections asking motorists for money. It’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt – or worse.’

“From Portland City Hall, I’m Charlie Van Bustle.

“Thanks, Charlie. WGAN reporter Charlie Van Bustle with the latest from City Hall. In WGAN weather, we’ll reach a high of 29 this afternoon, with morning clouds giving way to an afternoon storm system that will bring freezing rain and possible snow accumulations of three to five inches, just in time to snarl the afternoon comm –“

Ignoring the engine light, which had been lit off and on for a couple of months now, Marshall clicked the radio off and pawed through the cassettes in the glove compartment. On the way to the office he liked to listen to the stuff his wife hated or material she deemed, “inappropriate,” for the kids – Osgood Slaughter, Short Dogs Grow, that kind of shit – but today was a #TBT, so instead he snapped a pic of the Priest’s British Steel and posted it to Facebook with the words, “Breaking The LAW!” and cranked it.

The music filled the minivan and washed over him like nature’s own lullabye as he trundled down Deering Ave.

Breaking The Law. These days, it’s more like Rakin’ the Lawn.

At the corner of Marginal and Forest he stopped at a red. In the median between the four lanes of traffic, a disheveled man in dirty clothes held a sign that said, “Three kids. No drugs. No booze. Anything helps. God Bless.”

Marshall stared straight ahead, pretending he didn’t see the guy, and roared off when the light turned green. He pulled in to the office lot, killed the engine and took a deep breath.

Same as it ever was.

He was a few minutes early, but before he’d even sat down his cubemate, Charlie, popped up like a nervous prairie dog and said, “You hear? Word is that District’s shutting us down.”

“Bullshit,” Marshall said. “Our numbers last quarter were great.”

“Not great enough, I guess,” Charlie said. His left eye twitched. “I’m fat, bald and fifty, Marsh. I got a mortgage. Two kids in college. And a cell phone bill that’d make you shit bricks. You know what it’s like out there in the job market these days for guys our age? Not good, buddy. Not good.”

Marshall shrugged.

“You remember Ed, the guy that got canned last year? I ran into him the other day at the Target. You know what he’s doing now? Selling used cars at Jolly John’s. I’m can’t do that, Marsh. I can’t. These bastards got us by the shorthairs, and they fucking know it.”

“It’s not that bad, Charlie. The economy’s picking up.”

“Not for guys like us, Marsh. Not for guys like us.”

Marshall wandered over to the break room to grab some joe. A few of the guys were standing around, shooting the shit.

“I’m telling you, it can’t be done,” LeBlanc said. “With all the CSI crap they got, and all that DNA shit and everything else, there’s no fucking way. You cannot kill someone and get away with it these days. No fucking way. End of story.”

LeBlanc, with his salt-and-pepper hair and sharp, angular profile, had a mouth that reminded Marshall of a cat’s asshole, permanently puckered, and it gave him a look of condescending self-righteousness.

“You planning on killing someone, LeBlanc?” Marshall said, sipping his coffee.

“Nah, but there’s a few folks ‘round here that might wanna watch their backs if the rumors are true,” LeBlanc said in his clipped, Downeast accent.

The clock on the wall ticked over to eight.

“Time to get the meat in the seat,” LeBlanc said.

At 8:05, Bob, the office manager, came out of his office, a well-dressed younger man trailing behind him swiping at the screen of a smartphone.

“Here it comes,” Charlie whispered.

“Can I have your attention for a minute?” Bob said.

It was in the single digits outside and the office windows were frosted, but Charlie couldn’t help noticing that Bob was sweating. A lot.

“You all know Steve Perendo, from the District Office in Boston.” Bob said. “Steve, the floor is yours.”

Steve tore his attention from the phone and slipped it into the pocket of his tailored suit.

“Good morning,” Steve said, sweeping the room with a steady gaze. “First, let me say thank you for all your hard work. You guys had a good year last year, and the numbers coming out of this office were solid.”

Marshall sipped his coffee. It was cold.

“Unfortunately,” Steve said, “last year’s numbers won’t pay this year’s bills. We’ve got to step back and look at the big picture.”

The phone in his pocket pinged. Steve pulled it out and glanced at the screen.

“Excuse me for a second,” he said and tapped a reply.

“Where was I? That’s right, the big picture. The fact is, market headwinds dipped our bottom line over the last fiscal year. We're expecting higher earnings on a go-forward basis, but that won’t come without sacrifice. To exceed expectations, we’ve got to stop blue-skying and refocus on our core competencies, and that necessarily involves some contraction.”

Blank stares all around. Silence.

“What that means, gentlemen, is that we’re closing this office.”

Charlie steadied himself on LeBlanc’s desk and groaned. Bob stared at the floor. LeBlanc swore.

Marshall reeled, as if he’d just realized the train he was on wasn’t moving; that it was the train on the next track over that had started forward. Fifteen years he’d been here, the top producer for most of them.

“I’ve talked it over with Marty,” Steve said, “and we’ve decided that we’re going to offer as many of you as we can spots in the District Office, but we can’t take everybody. So the next two weeks are going to be critical and you, gentlemen, control your own destiny.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” LeBlanc said. “From where I sit, Mr. Man, it looks like we don’t control shit.”

Steve took a step toward LeBlanc.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, it looks to me like we don’t control shit. You hold all the cards.”

Steve turned his back on LeBlanc and walked to the whiteboard.

“If that’s how you’re thinking, you might as well get the fuck out of here right now, because that kind of thinking represents failure. And failure, gentlemen, is not an option” Steve said, turning to face the crew. “Any of you other sorry sacks of shit who share that point of view should follow right along. It is a new day, gentlemen. A new day.”

Steve began to pace, locking eyes with each of them in turn. He held his phone up.

“That text I got just now was from Marty, letting me know that we have spots at District for exactly three of you. So here’s how it’s going to work. For the next two weeks, each of you is going to work his respective ass off. At the end of the day, or the two weeks, as it were, he with the most money wins. It’s that simple. You want a spot at District, you have to earn it. You control your own destiny.”

Charlie looked up and swallowed hard. “What if we don’t want to go to District. What kind of severance package will there be?”

“Severance? There is no severance,” Steve said. “The fact is, we are generously offering you a chance to keep your job. It’s up to you whether you take it or not. If you want it, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. No hard feelings. But we don’t owe you anything. You have been well compensated during your time here – and if it were up to me, I’d say you’ve been too well compensated, and you’ve gotten comfortable. Soft. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be hungry. But those days are over. I’ll say it again: it’s a new day, gentlemen, and you control your own destiny.”

Steve looked over at Bob.

“Anything to add, Bob?”

“No, I think you’ve laid it out nicely, Steve. Now I suggest you all get to it. As Steve said, the next two weeks are going to be critical.”

“Fuckin’ bullshit,” LeBlanc said to Marshall under his breath as they went to their desks.

They spent most of the day fuming about the injustice of it all, cursing their fate and working each other up, and all the petty workday indignities that usually rolled off of Marshall instead found purchase and took root, sending up bright red flowers of quiet rage that slowly obliterated everything else in his mind.

By quitting time he was a taut bundle of anger and fear, tense and tightly drawn.

LeBlanc, Charlie and the rest said they were planning to head over to Bubba’s and continue the conversation. They’d asked him if he wanted to come along but Marshall declined. Everything that needed to be said had been said, and saying it again would not change a thing.

LeBlanc was right. They held all the cards, and that was the way of the world. Shit rolls downhill.

But knowing that did not make it any easier for Marshall to accept. It was one thing when someone else was at the bottom of the hill; it was something else entirely when it was him.

Sometime during the afternoon it had started to snow, but when Marshall left the office, that snow had become a cold, freezing rain that coated everything with a thin layer of ice, and the parking lot was slick with it. Marshall had to chip it off the minivan’s windshield with a scraper.

He got in and turned the key. The engine turned over but did not start. Marshall swore loudly and tried again. Nothing.

He pounded his hands against the steering wheel and the impotent anger that had been building inside him all day finally broke through, carrying him away in a fury of sound and violence. It felt good to hit something.

Marshall leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes, imagining what it would feel like to put his fist hard into Steve’s self-important face and feel the crunch of bone as it snapped under the impact. To silence his screams with steel toe of his boot, hard to the back of that smug prick’s head.

Fifteen years. Fifteen good years that clearly don’t mean shit, and never did.
How am I going to tell the wife?

He turned the key again and this time the engine started up. The check-engine light taunted him from the dashboard.

Motherfucker. Just once, just fucking once, it’d be nice to drive a car that doesn’t remind me every goddamn time I start it how shitty my life is.

He threw it into gear and backed out.

Coming down the hill toward Deering Oaks, he saw the panhandlers working the median strips at the light, cold and wet in the freezing rain, four of them covering the entire intersection from every direction. They were impossible to ignore.

That’s you in six months, pal.

Marshall tried to push the thought aside, but he could not. It hung there in his mind, bright and vivid, like a piñata that would not break no matter how much he hit it, and the unease that he’d so easily buried in the past gave way to full-on fear.

And rage – hard and jagged, manic and complete.

Marshall cranked the Priest and gunned the engine. The tires spun on the icy road and the minivan lurched forward.

The panhandler turned at the sound. His eyes grew wide with fear, but he did not scream.

What’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits the windshield? Its asshole.

Marshall’d hit a dog a few years back, but this was nothing like that. That was like taking a speed bump a bit too fast. This was the brutal thud of human flesh struck by two tons of American steel, dense and heavy, substantial and unshakable.

It felt good.

And at this moment, it was the most solid thing in his life.

F. J. Gallagher is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications. He lives and works in Portland, Maine.