Donald Shephard

Rick pops potato leek soup into the microwave and, out of habit, uses two-minute increments. The timer counts down the seconds for his food and for his life.

Ping. He has email.

Subject: A secret – Ben Chen retirement

From: Sue Hogsbottom

Date: Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Hey Rick,

How the heck are you? Will you come to the Symposium banquet on Thursday, May 29? Ben announced he’ll retire in July. He doesn’t want a party. If we roast him at Symposium banquet, that wouldn’t be a party, right? Can you come to Long Beach and serve as MC. We’ll get a room for you. We can’t think of a better person to host this event. Let me know.


Ping. Rick stirs the soup, returns it to the rotating bed and resets the timer.

A vignette fills his mind. Rick before his retirement in his cube talking to a colleague.

“I have had all kinds of supervisors in my time. They don’t matter to me anymore. I just take care of whatever comes onto my desk. This new supervisor is useless.”

Ben Chen passes the cube. His taught face, eyes dead ahead, tell Rick he has heard it all. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

Another vignette lights his mental screen. Rick presents at Symposium for the fifth year to great acclaim. The story line, the technical details of three investigations, the graphics, and the humor, especially the final morph of the division chief into Queen Elizabeth II, make him a popular speaker. He joins the agency bosses and their hangers-on at a beach party and tells them he wants to work for them. A girl latches onto him but he ignores her. He keeps his focus on the prize. The division chief says he had someone in mind but that he prefers Rick. The application period closed the previous day. The chief dismisses the problem.

"Get your paperwork in on Monday."

Bingo. He had the job.

Ping. The words, "Your food is ready,"pass across the LCD.

He drinks his soup, eats his sourdough and cheddar. His tea goes into the potato-leek-smelling machine for two minutes.

Rick knows he could put on a good roast. Ben Chen, the little man with an Amazon for a manager. She hired him to gain legroom on airplanes. Start with a slow motion pan from her face to her long legs and a diminished Ben below her knees. She looks at the soles of her shoes to see if she has stepped on him. Have one of the cube rats take a picture of him walking the aisles and add an orange cyclists’ pennant. How many Chinese have come into the world since Ben became supervisor? Maybe twenty percent are Chens. Is that a coincidence? Show multiple images of Ben spreading across the world. All of them skeet shooters like him. Deliver him a phony certificate from National Audubon Society for shooting clay not birds.

Yes, Rick thinks, he could put on a hell of an entertaining show. Maybe, exit stage left behind a smoke screen to avoid the old bastard.

Ping. Tea is hot. He sits in an easy chair and watches through the picture window as deer enter the wooded area below the knoll. He rehearses his conversation with Sue.


"What’s your name?"

"Sue Hogsbottom."

She would know at once, who teased her.

"Rick! How nice to hear you. Will you do it?"

The imaginary conversation ends there. He could not tell her that mutual dislike made it an impossible assignment. You only roast people you respect. He checks his calendar hoping for a conflict and finds none.

Work in the garden consumes his afternoon but not his thoughts. An osprey circles above him with a fish in its talons, calls its mate that food approaches, and mews like the incessant ping of a microwave. Rick hears and does not hear. The creative process of developing a witty presentation motors on in high gear. Applause rings in his ears on his return for one last stand-up routine and smiles again surround him. He grins at himself; vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It would be fun to crank out another pizzazz show but twelve hours driving each way for a night in a Long Beach hotel with old colleagues both admired and disliked; no thank you, Sue.

He takes his camera to the woods beside the stream snaps deer in the dappled light cast through the tan oaks and wax myrtles in the late afternoon.

A doe faces him wary but unmoved.


Last year's runt high-steps away.


The doe stares at him with apparent disinterest while another grooms her cheek, their bellies swollen with fawns.


The six deer move to the meadow.

Rick climbs the knoll, sucking in the clean sea air, enters his house and puts tea in the microwave for two minutes. He puffs his way up the stairs to his computer and selects the photo with the best composition of trees, deer and light. He uses Photoshop to add a message to Sue.

"My friends and I are happiest where we are, thank you."

He emails the photo.



He hears the hum of the microwave end, walks to the head of the stairs, and falls.


Rick reads the LCD in his head. Your heart has stopped.

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