Hank Johnson paced back and forth on the red and ivory flowered carpet. He was on the sixth floor of the Embassy Suites hotel waiting on the elevator. If it’d been up to him they’d have driven the final three hours and checked off another disappointing family vacation. His mother-in-law offered to pay for the hotel when the kids started getting out of control, but he only agreed when Karen pleaded with him to stop for the night.
When they arrived at the hotel, Hank stayed behind in the parking lot. He swore he’d never own a minivan but he was getting used to not getting his way. He busied himself with cleaning out fast food wrappers and other litter that accumulated in the maroon vehicle. But his motivation hadn’t been to clean the family car.
During the trip his mother-in-law discretely paid for a few things and Hank would look the other way, but he couldn’t face the embarrassment of watching her hand over her credit card for their stay. He knew she was just trying to help, but it made him feel inadequate.
Hank waited until Karen came out to the parking lot looking for him before he grabbed the bags. He hurried through the hotel doors and headed straight for the elevators, not even glancing at the reception desk. After a second trip to the car to find Avery's stuffed animal, he told Karen he needed to take a walk.
Hank punched the elevator call button three more times. When it finally arrived, he stepped in and tapped the ground floor button although it was already lit.
“Derek McAllister,” a man said, startling him.
Hank turned in the direction of the voice. The man was wearing a dark suit with a name tag printed in bold black strokes stuck to his lapel. Hank was wearing brightly colored Hawaiian swim trunks, a black t-shirt, and nikes without socks.
The man’s hand was extended.
Hank hesitated then gave it a quick shake. But when he went to release his grip, the man squeezed harder. He was looking at Hank expectantly with a grin on his face.
“Hank,” he said, shrugging his shoulder.
Hank looked up at the numbers on the elevator then at his phone. He calculated he had less than two hours before someone would come looking for him.
“Good to meet you, Hank. You here for the convention?”
“This is my first time. You have to rank in the top 10% to score the invite.”
Hank frowned then nodded.
“They put me up in one of the big suites on the top floor. Gave me lots of free stuff.”
Hank turned and stared at the stainless steel elevator doors and counted out the dings as they made their descent.
“Tomorrow we get to preview the new products,” Derek said to Hank’s back.
Hank squeezed through the elevator doors sideways as soon as they started to open. He scanned the lobby.
“The pool is that way,” Derek said.
“Not looking for a pool.”
“The hot tub is nice.”
“The bar. Which way to the bar?” Hank said.
Derek pointed toward the back corner of the lobby. There, behind the tinted window polishing wine glasses, stood Hank’s savior.
Hank grunted out his thanks and hurried forward.
“Will I be charging this to your room?” the bartender asked, dropping a cocktail napkin in front of Hank.
“No, I’ll pay.”
It was hard enough to let Karen’s mom foot the bill for the rooms, he wasn’t about to have her pay for his drinking too. He dug the wallet out of the back pocket of his swim trunks. Thankfully he squirreled away a little cash when no one was looking - a couple of dollars here and there when they bought snacks or souvenirs for the kids. Even skimmed a few bills off the overly generous tip his mother-in-law left at breakfast. A man needed some cash in his wallet.
Derek slid onto the stool next to Hank and tossed his black and gold credit card on the bar. “Put your money away, Hank.”
The bartender tipped his chin to Derek in recognition. “The usual?”
“I can buy my own,” Hank said. He might look it, but he wasn’t a charity case.
“Expense account,” Derek shrugged. “Gotta spend the money or they think I’m not working hard enough. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“If you put it that way.” Hank tucked his wallet back into his pocket.
“I don’t need to entertain any more clients,” Derek said peeling the name tag from his lapel. “I’ve already booked so many sales this quarter, my bonus check will be twice my annual salary.”
Hank had a 9 to 5 that barely paid the bills and twenty-seven dollars in ones he’d basically stolen from his own family. He noticed the fine detailing on Derek’s suit and his fancy shoes. Hell, even his credit card looked expensive.
“What is it that you do?” Hank said.
Derek reached into his inside jacket pocket and handed Hank a business card. “I’m in sales.”
Hank ran his thumb along the edge of the heavy stock. His glance slid across his name printed in gold embossing. “Is it hard work?”
“I listen to people, find out what they need, then sell it to them. Most of the time they even thank me for it.”
“No wait staff tonight. Just let me know when you’re ready to order dinner,” the bartender said to Derek as he set a drink down in front of each of them.
“How does someone get into sales?” Hank said.
“Are you looking for a job?”
“I’ve been thinking I might want a change. You do pretty well, huh?”
“I do alright. Have more than I need, but not enough to buy my own island.” Derek lifted his glass to take a drink and Hank noticed his diamond-studded watch.
“Bet you have nice wheels,” Hank said.
Derek smiled. He pulled out his phone and showed Hank the screensaver. It was a picture of Derek and a salesman standing next to a yellow Corvette in front of a car dealership.
“That guy made a hefty commission off me,” Derek said, shaking his head.
“Nice.” Hank said, handing him back his phone.
Derek looked at the picture and smiled. “Gotta spend my money on something, you know?”
No, Hank couldn’t say he did. He never had a problem deciding where his money would go. If it wasn’t the mortgage, the utilities, the car payment, there were doctor bills, or the kids needing new clothes. Most months Hank didn’t know how they managed.
“Got any advice for getting into sales?”
“You got a family, Hank?”
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s not the job for a family man. I travel a lot.”
“I don’t mind traveling.” As long as it’s not in a minivan, Hank thought.
“You have to be a people person,” Derek said. “You have to take clients out, make them feel important."
Other than his family and his two best friends, Hank didn’t care too much for other people, but if it meant pulling in the kind of cash Derek must have been, he could try.
“So, what, you take them out to dinner?”
“Dinner, golf, basketball games, whatever they’re into.”
“And you have an expense account to pay for it?”
Hank stared down into his drink. “Must be nice.”
“Gets old sometimes. A man can only eat so many steaks.”
Hank turned to Derek and smirked. “Sounds like a bitch.”
Derek laughed. “I’m telling you, sometimes I would kill for some homemade meatloaf.”
Homemade meatloaf was standard Tuesday night fare at the Johnson house. Meatloaf sandwiches in his lunch on Wednesdays. Hank didn’t suffer from lack of meatloaf.
“When you’re in sales, you have to be on all the time. You have to maintain a certain look,” Derek said, adjusting the cuff of his white dress shirt, a gold cufflink reflecting the light.
Hank grimaced when he caught Derek’s quick glance at his swim trunks. “Thought about taking the wife to Hawaii on vacation, but we’re gonna wait for a better time. Decided to stay close to home this year.”
In Hank’s estimation, they wouldn’t be able to swing a real vacation for about 20 years or so, when the kids were out of college and hopefully paying their own way. But that didn’t seem to bother Karen. Every year she’d plan the same family vacation to the same shitty amusement park and they’d stay in the same crappy hotel. She said she liked it that way, that it was the perfect vacation, that they were building memories with the kids. Hank wished he could see it that way.
“You’re on vacation with your wife?”
“Yeah, just a couple of days away from the grind.”
“You’re waiting for her to come down for a swim?”
The swim trunks were the only clean clothes Hank had left when he dressed that morning. Now he wished he would’ve just put on the mustard-stained jeans instead. “Nah.”
“How’d you meet her?”
“My wife?” Hank hadn’t thought about that in a while. “We met at a party in high school. I went with another girl but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.”
Hank would never forget the night he met Karen. He fell hard. It was everything about her - her smile, her laugh, the feel of her touch on his arm, the way she looked at him. He remembered the weeks it took to work up the courage to ask her out. He remembered their first awkward kiss and all the other firsts that followed. Karen was his everything.
“High school?” Derek whistled. “So what, you’ve been together about 10 or 12 years?”
“Together for 12, married for 8.”
“My marriage lasted less than 3 years. You’re a better man than me.”
Hank didn’t think he was better than anyone. Sometimes he wondered why Karen stayed with him. He barely earned enough to keep the bills paid, hadn’t made much of a career for himself. She’d say it didn’t matter, that they were doing fine, but she deserved better.
This whole lousy trip she kept saying how happy she was that they had time to spend together. She’d always been like that - easy going, not needing much. That was one thing he loved about her. But Hank wanted to be able to treat her like she deserved, to give her things he thought she wanted but she swore she didn’t. The truth was, she would be happy if he just held her hand more often.
Hank lifted his empty glass and caught the attention of the bartender.
“Did you end it or did she?” Hank said.
Derek furrowed his brow. “Technically she divorced me, but we both wanted it,” he said, “she just drew first.”
“That must have been tough.” Karen handing him divorce papers was the stuff of Hank’s nightmares.
Derek smiled and shook his head, but Hank caught a flash of regret in his eyes.
“I basically got a ‘get out of hell’ card and a free pass to sleep with other women. What’s not to like?”
Derek stared down into his glass before raising it to his lips for a long slow swallow.
“I don’t usually dress like this,” Hank said, wanting to change the subject. “I thought the only person I’d meet today was a teenager in a drive through when we stopped for chicken nuggets for the kids.”
“You have kids?”
“A boy and a girl.”
“Avery is four and Jack is six.”
“You really committed to the whole family thing, huh?”
“I guess I did. You have kids?” Hank said.
Derek rubbed the back of his neck. “Nah, we thought about it but I’m glad we didn’t. It would have complicated things.”
Hank nodded. He tried to imagine his life without Karen, without the kids but he couldn’t. They belonged together, they were a team.
“You ever worry about your wife sleeping with your best friend when you’re away at work?” Derek said.
Hank was leaning over his rum and coke. He turned in Derek’s direction and cocked his head.
“No, never.” Hank had a lot of worries, but that wasn’t one of them. Karen would never, ever cheat on him.
“It happens,” Derek said, downing the last of his drink. “You got a picture?”
“Of your family?”
Hank scrolled through the pictures on his phone. There was one of Avery with a blue ring around her mouth from eating cotton candy, her smile so big her chubby cheeks reduced her eyes to slits. There was one of Jack flexing his skinny arms after he rang the bell at the strongman game. Jack had no idea that the guy running the booth was controlling it. Hank chuckled.
The next picture was a selfie Karen took of all four of them. She grabbed his phone when they were standing in line at the log ride and insisted they take a group shot. The kids were laughing with their mouths open, their little cheeks flushed from too much sun. The closeup captured Karen’s pale freckles, the ones that disappeared when she wore makeup and that tiny dimple that showed up when she was really happy. Her blue eyes looked unbelievably vibrant in the bright light. Although everyone else was looking straight into the lens, Hank was looking somewhere off to the right with a frown on his face.
Hank passed him the phone.
Derek studied the picture. He turned and looked Hank in the eyes. “How do you do it?”
“How do you keep them happy?”
Hank rubbed a hand across his stubbled jaw. He thought about the kids, how their laughter and silly songs filled the house, how they ran to him every day when he got home from work. He thought about Karen, how she put up with his complaining, how she brought him a beer and took the kids to the park so he could watch the football game in peace, how just looking at her made him want to be a better person.
“You’ve got it all wrong, man,” Hank said shaking his head. “They’re the ones that keep me happy.”
Derek and Hank both turned when the bartender looked up and smiled. Karen’s hair was loose, not tied up in a ponytail like it usually was. She was wearing the yellow cotton sundress Hank loved. The color showed off the tan she’d gotten over the last few days. He couldn’t remember her looking prettier.
“Thought I might find you here,” she said.
As Karen neared the bar, Derek stood. Hank pushed himself to his feet.
“Karen, this is Derek.”
Derek extended his hand and took hers. She smiled in greeting but quickly pulled her hand away and turned her attention to Hank. She tucked herself in next to him and his arm wrapped around her instinctively.
“I figured you might need a drink after being stuck in the car with us all day.”
“I thought you were going to rest,” Hank said.
Karen slid a glance toward Derek then back to Hank.
“I had a better idea,” Karen said.
Hank smiled when that adorable dimple he loved creased her flushed cheek. “Oh, yeah?”
Karen nodded. “Mom said she’d take care of the kids all evening so we could have some alone time. She said they could sleep in her room.”
Hank grinned as he looked down into Karen’s eyes.
“Would you like a drink?” Derek said, offering her his stool.
Karen wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
Hank downed the rest of his drink and set the empty glass on the bar next to Derek’s business card. He grabbed Karen’s hand and led her through the maze of empty tables.
“Hey, wait,” Derek said. “There’s a nice steakhouse not far from here. What do you say? Should we take your beautiful wife out for a nice dinner? It would be my treat.”
“Thanks, but we have other plans,” Hank said.
Hank turned toward Karen and lowered his voice. “How about we order cheap Chinese takeout and eat it in our underwear. You know, like we used to?”
Karen giggled then nodded. Hank threw his arm around her neck and pulled her in for a kiss. Maybe Hank’s life wasn’t exactly like he imagined when they first got married. Maybe he hadn’t made as much of himself as he had hoped. But one thing Hank knew for sure, he had everything he ever wanted.