Jack Strong always has nice words for everyone he meets. “Lovely hat,” he says to a fellow shopper at the market. “Beautiful family you have there, friend,” he offers the fellow driver at the gas pumps. “You must be proud.”
Such manners hardly go unnoticed. “That Jack Strong always has nice words,” they say.
But it hasn’t always been so.
Jack Strong was sitting home one night reading the local paper when his doorbell rang. His instinct was to call his wife, but the sound was so rare that it piqued his curiosity and he chose to see for himself who it could be. He found the entrance bare and was about to close the door when he happened to glance down and noticed something on the ground. Picking it up, he saw that it was a manuscript, perhaps a dozen pages thick, with a dark brown cardstock cover. It was held together by three silver tabs pressed through three little holes running along the left hand side of the pages. His name was on the cover, in tall bold letters, along with the date.
Curious, he thought.
He hastily called out to his wife as he returned to his lounge chair to have a better look at the thing. Thumbing through it, he opened to a random page and started reading. The words were printed in all caps, double-spaced. He read: WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE SHIPMENT IS GOING TO BE LATE? I CALLED YOU THREE TIMES LAST WEEK TO CONFIRM. WHAT’S THAT? WELL, THAT’S WHY I CALLED. SO WHAT? SO, YOU WERE LYIN’ TO ME THEN. YEAH, I’M SAYIN’ YOU‘RE A LIAR. I’LL SAY IT AGAIN. YOU’RE A LIAR. AND AN IDIOT AND AN ASSHOLE. HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT?
Jack Strong sat right up, recognizing his own words immediately.
“That crazy son of a bitch. That lying, crazy SOB,” Jack said.
Certain he knew the meaning behind the manuscript, he instantly worked himself into such hysterics that his already ruddy complexion turned crimson. He could hardly hold his phone still enough to pound the proper buttons to call work. Of course no senior staff members were still there, but he tried explaining himself anyway. He explained his cancelled payment for the late shipment, as well as the manuscript he had just received—clearly a sign that the other firm intended legal action, a brash but bold step he thought. He went into it all at some length only to find his concerns dismissed. Flummoxed, he then called his boss at home, laying out the legal ramifications for all parties involved, only to hear more placation.
“Calm down, Jack. Everything’s fine. I spoke to them myself an hour ago,” his boss told him over the phone. “No, I’m sure of it. Everyone knows you’re a hothead.” His boss turned on his steam engine chuckle. “Besides, you’re right. That guy is one dumb son of a bitch. Just forget about it.”
Jack hung up, trading anger for uncertainty.
He flipped to the first page and began reading: WHERE’S MY GOD DAMN COFFEE? COME ON, WE TALKED ABOUT THIS…JESUS CHRIST, KAREN. JESUS CHRIST. DO YOU WANT ME TO BE LATE FOR WORK? I CAN’T DEPEND ON ANYBODY.
“Those sons of bitches bugged my house,” Jack said out loud.
Karen finally appeared, saying nothing. She played audience as Jack danced around their single floor, two bedroom suburban abode. She remained blank as he tossed, turned and tore apart everything from the entertainment center to the trash compacter, while he cursed and searched in vain for the listening device that must have been recording him.
“Can I trust you to do something for me, Karen?” he asked with his face pressed against the glass next to the front door, scanning their darkened neighborhood. “Can you keep an eye out for anything strange? Can you do that for me?”
“Strange?” she asked.
“Yeah, strange. It means out of the ordinary. Jesus, Karen. Strange men around the house, unusual vehicles parked in the street. Jesus, just forget about it. I can’t depend on you for anything,” he said, storming past her to disappear down the hallway to their bedroom.
She wanted to protest, but knew it would be better just to start putting the place back together instead.
The following evening, at about the same time, the doorbell rang again. This time, Karen was nearby and started for the door herself when Jack began sputtering for her to stop, to let him get it.
“I said I got it, god damn it,” he repeated when they collided just before the door.
This time he ripped the door open and bounded out onto the steps. Again, he found no one, but glared desperately up and down the street. Then he pawed at the manuscript on the ground with his left foot. He looked around once more before dipping quickly down to retrieve it. Once again, he traced his fat index finger across his boldly printed name and the day’s date.
Inside, he parked himself in his lounger and began shuffling through the pages. It was a bit thicker this time, perhaps twenty pages, but the formatting was the same. All caps, double-spaced. He read: I TOLD YOU TO DROP IT. ARE YOU FUCKING DEAF? YOU DUMB FUCKING IDIOT. Once again, Jack recognized his words, but was this from work or from home, he wondered. After looking through the previous manuscript more closely, he had noticed that whoever was doing this had been able to capture everything he said throughout the day, everywhere he went.
He read on: I SWEAR YOU’RE RETARDED SOMETIMES. WE’RE LUCKY TOMMY DIDN’T TURN OUT RETARDED. HE’S AN ANNOYING LITTLE PANSY ASS, BUT HE’S NOT A RETARD.
He looked up at Karen, who was drying some dishes, but only briefly then continued on. Slightly bored, slightly irritated, he began to flip around, noting words and phrases here and there. He tried to ascertain a pattern or a purpose to this strange intrusion.
On one page he read, though not consecutively: COCKSUCKER, SNOT LICKER, MONKEY FUCKER, HALF-WIT, AND POPCORN ASS.
On another page, he found the phrase: I’D RATHER DRILL ANOTHER HOLE IN MY DICK, FILL IT FULL OF KEROSINE, AND FUCK A FLAME THROWER THAN SIT HERE AND TALK ABOUT THIS ANOTHER GODDAMN SECOND, YOU SORRY SACK OF SHITBALLS.
For a moment he found himself amused at his own words, but when Karen finished in the kitchen and passed wordlessly by, he was sure he could sense her silent judgment. Her motion was too deadpan, he thought, her silence too knowing. A kernel of suspicion began heating up in his mind.
He read some more and the words FATASS, FART BAG, COW, and CUNT seemed to jump out at him rather judgmentally. He slammed the pages shut and called out to his wife, angrily.
Rather than Karen, Tommy poked his head into the room, dully, but slipped back into the darkened hallway like a startled eel when Jack jerked his torso toward the twelve-year old boy. A few moments later, Karen entered, offering the most congenial expression she could muster, which was quickly glossed over with a look of pained horror as Jack attempted to summarize the contents of the manuscript. Like the ill effects of spoiled seafood, Jack’s words were somehow worse the second time around. By the time he paused his recitation and moved into his accusations that she had been, not so much the author, but the manufacturer of the manuscript, Karen was doubled over in tears, a pulsing lump on the white carpet. Her thumping, body-wrenching tears were so thick that her only defense against his bizarre charges was the single word, NO. She repeated it in an incrementally longer and increasingly distorted manner, until it became an unintelligible saliva soaked squeal of denial.
“Is this supposed to make me feel ashamed, Karen? Is that what this is?” he finally asked, gripping the manuscript tightly in his fist. The implication was that it wasn’t working, but his voice was uncharacteristically uncertain; there was a truly rhetorical nature to his question.
“Jack, no. This is crazy, I would never…”
“I don’t even know how you’re doing this crap. Have you been following me all god damn day, Karen, or what?” He flung the manuscript down in front of her and pressed his foot menacingly on top of it, which creased the pages, but caused far less dramatic a sound than he desired, so he kicked it toward the door before storming off down the dark hall.
“Jack, think about it, that would be crazy. How could I? Why would I?” Karen called after him.
But it made no difference. Jack would not be assuaged in his suspicions, nor would Karen sway from her denials. When the weekend came, Jack let fly such a storm of vile obscenities, expletives, and denunciations that the following manuscripts were an inch thick for both Saturday and Sunday. Occasionally, he vacillated, spreading his ire between Karen and Tommy. He knew the boy was just about clever enough to be guilty. By the time a week had doubled into two, Jack started to appreciate the true stature of his predicament.
He slowly became aware that each time he opened the front door to retrieve a manuscript, entering too into his home, into his life, was a presence. Jack could not see the thing clearly, but he could sense it, he could feel it. Over time, he got to know the size and the weight of it, but perhaps too late. This creature: Shame, struck Jack deeply, goring him with a gut shot. But Jack was a fighter. The more he bled out with each new manuscript, the more he held defensively on to life, striking out at all around him, at anyone, as all were adversaries. But this cruelest of foes, the elusive Shame, was fast and sly and stayed always behind him casting his dark shadow of guilt. It grew stronger the more Jack lashed out.
It only took another month to wear Jack down. He grew bored with the exercise; he was tired of the fight. So, finally, he just let the manuscripts pile up in a corner without comment, without reflection, and without remorse. Faced with an enemy he could not defeat, Jack chose to ignore it. It was the melancholy truce of denial.
Then one day, Jack was gone. Without warning, he left his family, vowing never to speak to either of them again. It was a Sunday and he additionally vowed not to speak with anyone at all that whole day. He arranged the hotel the night before and sat through sunrise and sunset, silently, alone. To his great relief, there was no doorbell, not even a knocking, and no manuscript. He half expected a blank sheet to arrive at least, but no.
Of course, the next day was Monday, which meant back to work and business as usual. Jack did his best to keep quiet, to go about his day in a more solitary fashion, but the change in his demeanor drew notice among his coworkers. Their incessant questioning, their concerns—half serious, half mocking—grew so irritating that before afternoon coffee expired he had demonstrated with ample derision that Jack was still Jack.
IF YOU DON’T SHUT YOUR GOSSIPING COCK HOLES, I’M GONNA SHOVE MY FIST SO FAR DOWN YOUR FAT GUTS YOU’LL THINK IT’S DINNER TIME, Jack read that night when he got back to his hotel.
The manuscripts had recommenced.
Several weeks passed in this fashion when Jack decided to return home. Dreading the thought of anyone happening across his compiled musings, he loaded up the hotel manuscripts into his trunk before checking out. He found the house mostly vacant. Corresponding through his lawyer he soon learned that his wife and son had moved back to live nearer her parents.
Though it was literally true that Jack moved back in, his situation lacked all outward signs connoted by such a phrase beyond the physical habitation of the space. Beyond bringing in a bag of clothes and dumping his collection of manuscripts into the living room, Jack failed to replace any of the comforts of modern living that had been vacated from the house. The manuscripts became his bed, his table, and his television.
There were times when Jack learned to ignore the manuscripts that continued to arrive, ever dwindling in length due to Jack’s newfound isolation. Sometimes he would allow them to pile up for days on the front step before scooping up an armload and tossing them inside. There were times when Jack was forced to wade through them, like debris after a flood that had filled his home. Midnight paper cuts became a common hazard as he tossed and turned, sleeping amongst the ubiquitous pages. Yet there were times when he would organize them, first into neat piles, and then into stacks and rows, chronologically. He would always return to reading them, each night, reflecting on their meaning, theorizing on their origin. Sometimes he even questioned their accuracy, only to end up doubting his own memories.
Eventually he could not bare it any longer. In his despair, he formally resigned from his job. He refused to leave the house; he threw out his cell as well as the landline phone in the kitchen. It was a complete vow of silence. Of course, it worked as before. The manuscripts stopped. But any comfort he gained from finding the front step empty each day was overshadowed by the painful self-pity that filled the emptiness of his isolated condition.
Jack took to drinking. He took to crying jags. He took to self-justifying conversations in his head. And then he took to suicide pacts.
This was when the papers began to arrive.
One day, rather than a manuscript, Jack awoke to find a newspaper on his front step. It was the same local paper that he used to read daily, but he held no subscription anymore. It must have been a mistake, he thought, or some kind of promotion. For a moment he relished the distraction from his problems and sat down on the step to read.
Unfolding it, he was immediately caught by the large, front-page photo. There was a house that looked like it must have come from his very own neighborhood, as all the houses along that block looked very much distinctly similar. Looking closer, he realized that it was his house. In fact, he could hardly believe it, it was a photo of him sitting in front of his house. Worse, it was a photo of him sitting exactly as he was at that moment. It was a photo of that very moment.
Impossible, he thought.
He looked around to see who could have been doing this. Standing at the entrance of the house most directly across from him, he saw Mrs. Henderson. She held the same local paper in her hand and stared back at him. But, she wasn’t the only one. Up and down the block, Jack’s neighbors stood at their doorways, or in their garage entrances, or at their mailboxes, all holding papers and staring at Jack.
“Leave me alone,” Jack shouted, at no one in particular. “Just leave me the fuck alone!”
He stood up and spun around, forcing his mangy, dark blue robe to balloon out around him, and then retreated into the house, slamming the door behind him.
Inside, he looked again at the paper. The image had changed, this time showing Jack shouting on his front steps. It looked similar to the many paparazzi photos of celebrities and shamed politicians that fill the tabloids.
Jack read the headline: LEAVE ME ALONE SAYS LOCAL RECLUSE.
“What the hell is this?” he said aloud to himself, only to feel a pang of regret at the knowledge that he was likely to get another manuscript that night.
He read on:
Jack Strong blames others for the train wreck that his life has become. After abandoning his family and quitting his job, Mr. Strong has isolated himself in his largely vacant residence on Pine Street where he is physically and mentally withering away.
Another story was headlined: STRONG CONTEMPLATES SUICIDE.
He began to read:
After quickly ruling out cutting his wrist, Mr. Strong made a list of alternative methods in order of preference. Despite a strong desire to shoot himself, Mr. Strong is regrettably resigned to the fact that the effort to acquire a gun is too great to achieve, leaving pills and carbon monoxide poisoning as his best alternatives.
Other stories were less weighty. One headline read: TRIPS TO THE BATHROOM INCREASE AFTER JACK DANIELS. Another similar story began with: MAN EXAMINES EXCRIMENT, FINDS CORN. And another: FOND MEMORIES OF THE COAST QUICKLY FADE.
He couldn’t believe what he was reading. His every thought was there in black and white. And, apparently, for all to see. He crumpled the paper into a loose ball and tossed it down the hall. He locked his front door and proceeded to kick and maul the stacks of manuscripts until he was exhausted and passed out for the rest of the day.
The next morning, before the sun rose, Jack dressed. For the first time in weeks he put on the type of clothes he deemed appropriate to appear in public. He drove to the nearest convenience store, a gas station near the interstate. The day’s papers were still stacked and bound just inside the front door. Jack held them aloft, looking at the clerk, a squat, bearded man who sleepily glanced at his watch and shrugged his shoulders. Jack began tearing at the yellow straps binding the papers until the clerk handed him a pair of long, silver scissors.
Pealing off the top paper, Jack held it out in front of him, revealing a photo of himself passed out on his living room floor. The headline read: IS THIS THE END?
Needles of anxiety poked around Jack’s skin, probing his stomach and up along his arms and neck until they stung his face. He shuffled through the rest of the papers and they were all the same: IS THIS THE END…IS THIS THE…IS THIS…
“What the fuck does this mean?” he asked accusingly to the clerk who had barely moved since Jack entered. With complete economy of motion the clerk glanced down at the papers and back up to Jack only to offer another slight shrug in response.
“Well? Tell me,” Jack continued, shoving the paper in the man’s face. “Look at it you dumb fucking caveman. You fucktard shit for brains. Look at it. Doesn’t it seem odd to you or do you get enough oxygen in that dung filled vacuum in your skull to process human speech?”
With surgical precision, every muscle in the clerk’s face pinched ever so slightly toward his thick, fleshy nose. He took one deep breath and then in a high-pitched voice, in a near whisper, he said, “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Jack stood still for a moment, but then pressed forward. “I’m sorry, what was that? What’d you say? You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t speak stupid.” Jack shoved the paper right in the man’s face, knocking the rest of the papers onto the floor at the clerk’s feet along with several counter displays of gums and other candies. The clerk tried to move away, but Jack grabbed hold of his t-shirt collar and was pulled partially onto the counter.
“Don’t pretend you can’t see it, you prissy little peon. I know you can see it! You’re not deaf, dumb and blind, are you? I just want it to stop. STOP IT! For Christ’s sake, just make it stop!”
As he spoke, he began to reach out and knock items onto floor. Cigarettes, lottery tickets, cleaning supplies.
“P-please, sir, I don’t…”
But this only provoked Jack. He wadded the newspaper up and started striking the clerk like he was an errant dog. Hitting him over and over with quick snaps of his wrist.
“P-puh-puh-please? You wanna ask me puh-puh-please? I’m the one who should be saying please, maggot breath. PLEASE!” Jack stopped swatting the man and held the mangled paper open again, shoving it into the clerk’s face. “Please read it. Read it you shit. You big, stupid shit.” He backed up a step, breathing heavily and suddenly appeared to lose his balance. “Read it…read it…please. I’m so…”
He dropped his arms, holding the paper with both hands at his waste. He looked down at it, still taking in chest humping breathes. The picture had changed. There he was in full color, standing in front of the counter, surrounded by the disarray of his fury. Even in newsprint he could make out the madness on his own face and the confused fear on the clerk’s. LOCAL MAN LOSES GRIP ON REALITY, GIVES UP HUMANITY FOREVER, the headline read.
Jack sucked in a long, sad breath and held it a moment before letting it go with a blubbery, lip-rumbling sigh. That’s it then, he thought. He knew at that moment that he couldn’t allow himself to go on like this. But, what to do? What to do?
Jack put the paper down onto the counter and crouched down to pick up the rest, placing them also onto the counter. He surveyed the rest of the damage and knew it would be best if he just left.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He pulled out a ten-dollar bill and held it out to the clerk who didn’t move. Jack placed it delicately onto the counter, pushing it slightly toward the man. “I’m terribly sorry. I…” his head drooped, “have a nice day.”
Jack left, not a changed man, but one who knew when he was beaten. He drove back home, all smiles and waves, knowing that he had no other choice. He would forever have to play nice and keep the rest inside. He only hoped that one day it wouldn’t feel so much like a goddamn act.
Jack Strong always has nice words for everyone he meets...