Keep Coming Back, It Works

Mr. McTeague has a coffee with his girlfriend in his kitchen every Sunday morning. Rodney watches from his car, through the kitchen window, as Mr. McTeague reads the Sunday paper, blurting out scraps of news to his girlfriend.
            Rodney comes to Mr. McTeague’s residence every Sunday, even though he lives on the opposite side of town. Rodney and Mr. McTeague have a routine, and they seldom deviate.
            Mr. McTeague’s girlfriend sips from her coffee mug—hers is teal, bought from some coffee shop, the fancy kind painted by some budding artist. At times, she seems genuinely surprised by current events. Other times, it’s rather obvious she feigns interest. Mr. McTeague sips from a plain white coffee mug, stopping at the third page of the Sunday paper.

Mr. McTeague at the scene of the crime:
Mr. McTeague sat in the parked squad car with his hands covering his face. The police officers locked him in, despite Rodney’s pleas and protests. They all knew Rodney was in no shape to confront a situation of this magnitude in that moment.
            Mr. McTeague might have fallen asleep in his hands, but there was no telling. Police officers wouldn’t let Rodney, shaking as he was, screaming as he was, come close enough to know for sure. Rodney paced back and forth. The morning was still dark and the trees brooded over him while the sun began to rise over the dying lights of Reno. When all the work was done, when he managed to stop reeling and his shaking had come to a low tremble, Rodney watched the trucks tow away the two cars—one of them his son’s seventeenth birthday present. He watched the squad cars, the fire trucks, and the paramedics pull away from the front of his house. He wasn’t sure exactly what to do after that. The medics told him there was no reason for him to come along with them. He couldn’t believe it when an officer told him to try to get some sleep.
            He went into his garage. His neighbors, an elderly couple, went for their morning walk and could only stare in perplexity as Rodney came out with the long broom. He didn’t say a word to either of them as he swept up the broken glass.

Rodney reads the same paper as Mr. McTeague. The same page, as a matter of fact. He mouths the words on the headline of the third page. RODNEY LAW TO TAKE EFFECT TOMORROW.
            Why do people believe so much in second chances? Rodney thinks as he sits in his car, waiting for Mr. McTeague to start his day.
            Rodney looks around the neighborhood and there’s only one single-story home among the larger houses in the cul-de-sac. Mailboxes stand sturdy at the edges of each lawn, many scale replicas of the houses themselves.
            Rodney rifles through some junk mail in the car. He stops on a letter from the Victim Impact Panel. Third Thursday Night of Every Month, the flyer reads. He’s hosted scores of VIPs in the past years, lecturing people from all ages and all walks of life, but has recently lost interest. He’s lost motivation. More people keep showing up.
            The first panel he hosted, Rodney spoke to ten people in a small classroom. Now the VIP is held in a large auditorium at the convention center. Four hundred people were at the most recent VIP Rodney was a part of. A Victim Impact Panel shouldn’t be a growing industry.
            Since Rodney stopped hosting, the organization that puts on the VIP has sent him a letter every week reminding him of his obligation. He crumbles up the flyer and throws it out of his window, onto Mr. McTeague’s lawn.

Rodney at the V.I.P:
Schroeder Holman was the newest speaker at the final panel Rodney attended. Holman sold his story, like every speaker at the panel does. Rodney could tell Holman worked it over many times in his head.
            Holman’s little brother was a sophomore in college. He was killed because he got in a truck with a drunk driver. Holman spoke of everything his little brother could have done, the infinite promise that he had. The absolute possibility. Holman went on to reveal that the drunk driver was, in fact, himself. He was racing another truck out in the mountains, his brother tucked in the passenger seat, impressed with his older brother until his final breath. Holman spun out and flipped, killing his passenger.
            All I had was a broken ankle, Holman confessed. But that didn’t stop me from stumbling to an overhang, a small cliff. I flipped my legs over, ready to throw myself off, wondering if the drop was high enough to do the job, he said. So I started scooting over to make sure I’d land on a large rock.
            Holman started to cry. He tried to regain his resolve, and this took several seconds. He looked up at the audience. But someone came and grabbed my shoulder, Holman said. He told me that I have to live through this. That I have to stay with this.
            Holman concluded his story and a reluctant set of claps exuded from the audience. Everyone except Rodney. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to accept this man. Rodney shrugged it all off and left, knowing he wouldn’t return.

The shoulder of Rodney’s jacket is dirty; he must have brushed up against his car before he got in. A car wash down the street from his apartment sent promotional coupons to all the residents. He’d meant to use his, but it expired a couple days ago. He decides not to wipe off his jacket; he’s beyond that now.
            Mr. McTeague walks down the driveway. He picks up the piece of paper on his lawn, spreads it out in his hands, and reads it. He frowns, shoves the flyer into his pocket. Mr. McTeague waves to his girlfriend, who stands at the door, glaring at Rodney. Rodney waves as well.
            Now that the Responsible Grieving Act has been passed, Rodney is convinced that this is the second biggest tragedy of his life. People in the community started calling it The Rodney Law and the name stuck. Journalists use it in their headlines. It was Mr. McTeague’s hot shot lawyer’s idea. He was over having dinner one night and saw Rodney’s car parked across the street. He came out huffing and puffing, telling Rodney to leave the premises.
            That Monday, Mr. McTeague’s lawyer tried to get a restraining order, but couldn’t get it passed, not after the judge reviewed the nature of their relationship. But after many, many complaints, and after a few incidents similar to this in other counties, a new law has been passed in the state of Nevada for people who have served their time, paid their debt to society, and want to be left alone.
            Mr. McTeague backs out of his driveway, eyes fixed on the road.
Rodney’s car has a loud backfire. He could fix this problem himself, but he’s going for effect now. He likes the sound. Likes how Mr. McTeague flinches when the gun goes off.
            Rodney keeps following Mr. McTeague, passing the endless rows of hand-sculpted bushes. Mr. McTeague’s neighborhood is different than Rodney’s old neighborhood, and yet even more different than the apartment complex in which Rodney now lives. No trash in the gutter. Sidewalks get cleaned every other week. All of the insulated neighborhood lawns are perfectly groomed and perfectly green.

Mr. McTeague while driving:
Very careful. Never once does he go over the speed limit. Stays away from school zones completely. Stays out of residentials as often as possible, but, when forced to drive through neighborhoods, Mr. McTeague always keeps one eye on the driveways at his right.

They both pull into the Right Mart parking lot, which is just about empty because everyone is at church. Rodney never cared for religion. Zealots are base creatures. Weak people go to church. But he used to go anyway with his wife, because she wanted to forget. She wanted to hand it all over to God.
            Rodney couldn’t hand it over, he couldn’t forget, which is why he quit going to church altogether after the divorce. Instead he spends each Sunday reminding Mr. McTeague. This is his church.
            Rodney takes a moment to recognize the fact that Mr. McTeague looks different now. He’s more broad and muscular, no longer the boy he once was. Rodney finds a sliver of comfort in the fact that Mr. McTeague spent the better part of his twenties behind bars. Rodney secretly hoped that Mr. McTeague would have a hard time acclimating himself to civilized life again.


Mr. McTeague in prison:
Rodney would drive to Carson City to visit Mr. McTeague every Sunday, a wall of glass between them. Mr. McTeague would hold the phone up to his ear, mouth the words Please pick up, but Rodney would just sit there, staring at him.

Mr. McTeague shops at Right Mart, which has the best cold cuts in town. Somehow, he finds himself deserving of fine meats. He walks the aisles, looking intently at the space in front of him. Mr. McTeague is very good at evasive maneuvering by now.
            There was a time when he wasn’t. Mr. McTeague broke down and asked Rodney one evening, in this same store: Don’t you have a life to get back to?
            What is there to go back to? Rodney asked him. This is my life now.
            Mr. McTeague looks to be going on with his life. He’s been seeing this girl for a while. She seems nice. The first night she came back to his house with him, Rodney stood on Mr. McTeague’s front lawn and informed the young lady that she was on a date with the man who killed Derek Jameson Rodney nine years ago, the kid who was supposed to go to Harvard, the kid who could have cured cancer, as Mr. McTeague fumbled with his keys at the door. Mr. McTeague’s date stared at Rodney like he had killed someone.
            He’s already told me what he’s done, she said. She told Rodney that she hoped he could find a way, one day, to be happy.
            Happiness, now, is slippery. Like a fish in the water, he can’t wrap his hands around it. Some things we can’t go back to. He can’t go back to being happy when his son is dead, and his family torn apart. Rodney could only laugh at this girl standing in front of him. Mr. McTeague and his date went into the house, back to their lives, leaving Rodney out on the lawn.
            Rodney remembers his life before DJ. He remembers his laugh—how it used to die in the air, only a few feet in front of him, as it did that night laughing at Mr. McTeague’s girlfriend. It wasn’t real until his son was born.
            Moving on. Being happy. DJ’s mother had even said a thing or two to Rodney about it. Phil, she said, I can’t go on like this.
            What do you do when you can’t go on? You don’t go anywhere; you just stay in the same place. But, somehow, DJ’s mother managed to marry someone else and have two new children. Rodney gave her the house and hasn’t gone back there since. He wonders if those two children know anything about DJ.
            Rodney flips through the pages of his magazine, walking through Right Mart with Mr. McTeague. Mr. McTeague walks by the liquor aisle, not one look in its direction.
            The checker no longer charges Rodney for his magazine; he just rings it in as a freebie, looking at Mr. McTeague disdainfully. Or is it Rodney he looks at with disdain? Or is it both of them?

Later in the day, Mr. McTeague goes for a walk in the park. He sits on a bench near a pond and breaks up pieces of bread to feed the ducks. They take the bread and waddle away. Rodney stays in his car, watching with binoculars.

Mr. McTeague’s first breath:
No one was there to pick him up, that first day outside. This surprised Rodney, who figured Mr. McTeague’s father would’ve picked him up in a Cadillac or something to that effect. But Mr. McTeague was alone that day, waiting for the bus, fixing his hair using a parked car’s window, wearing the same suit he wore to the trial. Before boarding, he looked back at the prison like he’d left something behind.

In the late afternoon Rodney accompanies Mr. McTeague to an AA meeting. After being in the program for a few years, Mr. McTeague has become a sponsor to other people who suffer. He’s told them all what he’s done. None of them look at Rodney as he sits in a chair in the back of the room. Rodney doesn’t hold their hands as the meeting concludes; he stands outside of the big circle and listens to their chant: Keep coming back, it works.

Mr. McTeague’s first AA meeting:
Very reserved. Said his name and nothing else. My name is ——. Everyone waited for the rest, but it didn’t come. Some of the members looked disappointed, but others had the wisdom to know the things they couldn’t change. It took seven meetings for Mr. McTeague to introduce himself properly as an alcoholic.

After the meeting Mr. McTeague goes for a long drive. Rodney follows him loosely, taking a cab, in hopes of making Mr. McTeague think he’s no longer being followed.
            The cabbie drives off the meter. I know who you are, he says. I know what this is. It’s all on me.
            Don’t feel sorry for me, you dumb bastard, Rodney says. The cabbie doesn’t look over. He doesn’t appear to be offended at all.
            Not after long, Rodney knows exactly where Mr. McTeague is going. They drive up a long, thin road surrounded by trees and grass, to the cemetery’s largest parking lot. Time to stop, Rodney says aloud, maybe to the cabbie, maybe to himself. He sees Mr. McTeague get out of his car holding flowers in his hand. Rodney doesn’t get out of the cab until Mr. McTeague is out of sight. You don’t have to wait for me, he says to the cabbie.
            Rodney walks up the familiar hill, watches Mr. McTeague put flowers by DJ’s grave. It’s the biggest headstone; Rodney and DJ’s mother spent half of his college fund on the funeral, gave the other half to start the Victim Impact Panel. Mr. McTeague stands in front of the grave, knowing Rodney’s there without having to look.
            I want you to do this, Mr. McTeague says. He reaches into his pocket and hands something to Rodney.
            Rodney doesn’t know what it is until it hits his hand. The pistol sits heavy in his palm, and he looks at it there for a long moment. Rodney searches himself. He stands next to Mr. McTeague, ruminating over they ways he could kill this man. Rodney wishes he could act instinctual. But he can’t. No, he says. I need you to live.
            Rodney tucks the gun behind the waistband of his pants. Mr. McTeague sits down, face in his hands again. Maybe I’ll just do it myself then, he says.
            Rodney thinks for a moment. You have to stay with this, he says.
            They sit with DJ for a moment. McTeague pulls out a crumbled piece of paper from his pocket. I’m thinking about helping with the Victim Impact Panel, he says, without looking over.
            Rodney examines the paper again. I’m sure they can use you.
            Mr. McTeague picks himself up, brushes himself off. I don’t care much about The Rodney Law, he says. I know what I deserve.
            You might not ever know that, Rodney says. He starts walking away. Maybe I’ll see you one of these Sundays.


Rodney at home:
When he gets to his apartment, Rodney listens to the one message on his answering machine. It’s from DJ’s mother.
            I’m sorry about tomorrow, says the grainy voice of the answering machine, the semi-robotic voice of his DJ’s mother. But I think this will be what’s best for everyone. I love y—
            Message deleted, says the grainy voice of the answering machine.
            Rodney pulls the gun from his waistband, places it next to a videotape on the coffee table. He’ll get rid of the gun tomorrow, maybe tie it to a brick and throw it in the pond while feeding the ducks next Sunday. Rodney sits down on his couch completely still, thinking about the leftovers of leftovers in the fridge, wondering why people are so big on second chances.
            All the while he stares at the coffee table. It takes a long time before he sits up and reaches for the videotape.
            He puts the tape in the VCR and watches an old video recording of his five-year-old son riding a bike, his helmet slightly tilted on his head, hair poking out of the air holes. He’s still smiling that toothless smile he had as a young boy, his top row knocked out from a bout with the monkey bars. His adult teeth didn’t push through until he was ten. Derek pedals for the first time without training wheels, but he is not afraid. Only a smile on his face. No sign of the weighty universe. Rodney can feel himself smiling behind the camera too, laughing a different laugh. You’ll do good things in this world, Rodney hears himself say. You’ll do good things.

Sean Barron is a writer who split his youth between Joshua Tree, California and Reno, Nevada. He earned his MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University and now stays in Long Beach, California. His first feature screenplay, Backtrack, is currently in pre-production and has been acknowledged by the Austin Film Festival, alongside his first TV pilot, The It Factor.

Photography by Roger Camp.