Synopsis: A failing business and a decaying relationship have driven Ervin to desperation. He’ll do anything to escape the circumstances that have been thrust upon him.
Author’s Note: This story was my Round #2 entry in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Contest (September 2017). You can read my Round #1 entry here. Unfortunately, this didn’t even do as well as my previous story. I’d like to think it was because I had to write in the “drama” genre, with which I’m not familiar.
It had been drizzling for hours, but the cement mixing truck’s cab was dry and warm. Ervin sat in the driver’s seat with his eyes closed when the phone vibrated in his jacket pocket. It was a message from his wife, asking when he was coming home. He muttered something under his breath and dropped the phone on the dashboard.
It was almost 10 pm, but he couldn’t leave before delivering tonight’s batch. The passenger side door suddenly sprang open, startling him. A man wearing an ascot cap pulled himself into the truck’s cab and slammed the door shut.
“Cold night, isn’t it?” the man asked, rubbing his palms and blowing on them.
Ervin nodded. “It’ll be done in a few minutes,” he said, thumbing toward the back.
The man nodded once, took out a hip flask, and raised it to his lips. The rumble of the truck’s engine and mixing mechanism masked the pattering noise of the raindrops. Ervin glanced at the man from the corner of his eyes, as he took off his glasses and wiped it with a handkerchief. It was hard to gauge his mood, or age, for that matter.
Ervin’s phone vibrated against the dashboard, again. He picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket without looking.
“I hope I’m not keeping you from something important,” the man said, turning toward Ervin.
Ervin looked at him and shook his head. The man continued to stare at him, then held out his hip flask. Ervin shrugged and accepted. He gulped down the whiskey, feeling it burn its way down his throat. He sighed, took another swig, then handed the hip flask back.
“So, what is it that I’m mixing back there?” he asked, knowing he really shouldn’t.
The man sat still, staring through the fogged up windshield, the orange glow of the street lamp painting reflecting off his glasses.
“Does it matter?” he replied, without moving.
Ervin shrugged again. “It certainly pays better than mixing cement.”
“Cement has had its day, my friend. Now, you can 3D print whole houses,” the man said.
Ervin snorted. “Yeah, shitty toy houses.”
The man turned toward him. “Real houses. With running water and electricity,” he said, quietly.
“No shit,” Ervin muttered. “Is that why I’m losing my contracts?”
The man continued staring at him. His impassive gaze made Ervin squirm.
“Business not going well?” the man asked.
“Why the hell do you think I’ve been mixing this shit for you for over a year now? It’s my only steady source of income. Makes me wonder what it is and why you pay so much.”
The man looked away, leaned back in the seat, and took a swig from the hip flask. “I’m just a distributor. I bottle it up and sell it. Rich or poor, old or young, locals or foreigners, doesn’t matter. Nets me a decent profit, though. I don’t know much beyond that.”
Ervin scratched his stubble for a few seconds, then asked, “What do you tell people you sell it to?”
The man shook his head. “Nothing. They come to my pharmacy, pick it up, and leave. Sometimes I sell it as cough syrup, sometimes as mouthwash. They always seem to know which.”
Ervin nodded. He had figured it to be some kind of an illegal drug.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said. “At one point of time, marijuana was illegal. But the government realized they couldn’t stop people from buying or selling it. So they legalized it, and took a cut of the profit.”
“Profit is all I’m interested in,” Ervin grunted.
They sat quietly after that, passing the hip flask between them when the phone vibrated in Ervin’s pocket. He didn’t even bother checking.
“Trouble at home?” the man asked.
Ervin snorted. “A failing business and a spendthrift wife. Ever heard a better recipe for trouble?”
The man raised his hip flask in acknowledgment and swigged it.
Ervin turned toward the man, with both hands clutching the steering wheel. “Listen, I just lost another contract and have got three cement mixers lying unused. Let me at least get one more truck involved.”
Even though the ascot cap and the thick glasses hid half the man’s face, Ervin could tell he seemed amused.
“You don’t even have to pay me in full. Just 75% of what you’re paying now,” he pleaded.
The man turned toward him, smiling. “If only money could solve all problems.”
“Says someone who has it,” Ervin shot back.
A light suddenly started blinking on the dashboard, and the mixer rumbled to a stop. Ervin looked at the man, sighed, and punched the lever that would dump the contents of the mixer into the container.
The man placed a wad of cash on the dashboard, adjusted his spectacles, and threw the door open. He was halfway out when he stopped, reached into his pocket, took out a small bottle, and placed it beside the cash.
“This is what I’ve been selling this week,” he said, looking at him pointedly.
Ervin watched the man shut the door and heard a vehicle pull away after a few minutes. He reached for the cash, but his hand stopped short. Instead, he picked up the small dark bottle. The dim glow of the street lamp was hardly enough to read the fine print on the label, but the black skull and crossbones symbol stood out stark against the pale paper. The words below the symbol read, ‘Rat Poison.’
Ervin pocketed the cash, locked the truck, and started walking in the rain. Half a block down, he stopped beside a trash can and dropped the empty bottle of rat poison in it. He walked on, unflinching, even as the drizzle turned into a downpour.