Three-Hour Window

This is a short story I knocked out today in a couple of hours as sort of an exercise to work out the writing muscles while I futz around with longer fiction that is stuck in a ditch and can’t get out. I’ve been filling in the gaps with short fiction, most of which is pretty dark. I took a stab at something lighter this time, less weighty. But it still got pretty dark toward the end. It was fun, though. I love it when writing can actually be fun.

Chuck grabbed the first booth he saw, planted himself down on the seat and snatched a menu off the menu rack. He’d have to order fast and eat faster. It’d been a busy morning – two jobs already.

On the first job he had to snake cable around three different rooms, install a couple wall outlets and enter the crawlspace below the house to find the connections, dirty as hell down there. He hated those kind of jobs, old homes with idiot owners who don’t know where anything is. The second job was easier – a brand new apartment that belonged to a smoking hot little thing named Matilda, Tabitha, something like that. Chuck could’ve knocked that job out in 30 minutes but he took his time, drew it out, chatted Matilda/Tabitha up a little, showed her how much he knew about installing cable TV. She was impressed, Chuck could tell. He told her he hoped to see her again and she told him goodbye.

Man, he was hungry. Installing cable TV was hard work, you worked up an appetite, don’t kid yourself it’s easy. He glanced up and down the menu and everything looked good, all of it. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Country style steak over rice. Ribeye and baked potato. Chicken n’ dumplings, fried flounder, fried chicken, fried pork chops, chicken fried steak, lasagna, barbecue platter. Who could decide? Hell, he’d just order a couple cheeseburgers and a large onion rings. Something quick he could wolf down. He had more jobs ahead of him. Always more jobs, always busy.

He looked up and spotted a waitress and stuck his finger in the air to get her attention. She gave him a big old smile and waltzed over his way. Nice looking, too. Red hair, fit enough, probably around Chuck’s age, mid-30s or thereabouts, maybe older. Her name tag said Crystal.

“How you doin’ darlin’?” Crystal said.

“Any better and they’d have to arrest me,” Chuck answered.

“Well I hope it don’t come to that.”

“Doin’ even better now that I seen your pretty face, Crystal.”

“Aww, listen to you, ain’t you the sweet one though? Whatcha havin’ today, Chuck?”

She must’ve seen Chuck’s name tag too, on his Cable TV uniform.

“Gimme two cheeseburgers, one of ‘em a double, both with chili and sliced tomatoes,” he said. “And a large onion rings. Sweet tea to drink.”

“You really gonna eat all that?”

Chuck winked at her. “You just watch me.”

Crystal smiled and looked at her watch. “Okay, looks like it’s about 1 p.m. We should get that order to you sometime by 4 o’clock. You just sit tight, hear?”

Chuck gave her a puzzled look. “4 o’clock? You serious?”

“Oh, we always have a three-hour window of service, just in case something goes wrong,” Crystal said. “But you just sit tight. I’ll let you know when the order’s ready to go.”

“Three-hour window? But I ain’t got time….oh, wait a minute. You saw my uniform, from the Cable TV. Makin’ a little joke, huh? ‘Three-hour window.’ You’re a cute one, ain’t you? Three-hour window. Yes ma’am, I’ll be sure to stay right here and sit tight during that three-hour window.”

Chuck winked again and Crystal smiled again and he chuckled and she went on her way. That was a pretty good joke: three-hour window. Crystal was probably flirting with him, is what it all came down to.  Though it wasn’t the first time somebody mentioned the three-hour window when they found out Chuck installed cable TV. Matter of fact, it happened damn near every time. “Why do ya’ll have a three-hour window for installation, make customers wait around like that? Why can’t you set a specific time like everyone else?”

Boy, people just didn’t understand cable TV installation. It ain’t like other jobs. In cable TV, every job’s different. Cable technicians don’t know what they’ll run into on a job. You might need to drill holes, pull and replace wires, add outlets, set up boxes in the damndest places, hook up an old TV to a new DVR, get into the basement or crawl space. Three hours. That ain’t so long, is it? Seems pretty reasonable, all things considered. Hell it used to be four hours before satellite TV and then streaming services and Google Fiber made the cable companies decide to cut it down to three hours to be more competitive.

Does a job usually take three hours? Well no, not precisely. Some jobs take much less than that. Heck, damn near all of them do. But you might run into traffic heading to the next job. Or, you might need to stop off at the convenience store for a snack and a Coke or Red Bull or maybe a cold Budweiser if it’s hot outside.

And some jobs, you just get to talking to someone. They’ll talk your ear off, ask a thousand questions. “What’s the red button on the remote for? What’s this thing on the cable box? What’s that cord for? How do you reset this thing?”

Here, take a damn brochure and figure it out, I ain’t got time for all this mess!

Chuck would never say that, though. He answers the questions. Of course he does. It’s his job.

And then there’s those customers that just want to talk about any old thing. The weather. The ball game. The neighbor next door with the loud dog. And then the woman this morning, the cute one, Tabitha or Matilda. She was asking all manner of stuff. Chuck tried to listen but he couldn’t concentrate on nothing but how good looking she was. He was hoping she might want a little “extra service,” ha ha ha. MatildaTabitha didn’t have a ring on her finger, so she was a free agent. Not that it matters. Chuck was only 37 and he’d been married three times already. He was what you might call an expert in the field of marriage, knew all about it. Marriage ain’t no big deal. It comes, it goes. Chuck might even get married again, to his girlfriend Luisa, though for now they were just shacking up.

All this thinking made Chuck forget how hungry he was, but then his stomach reminded him. He looked at his watch: 1:20. Been here twenty minutes and no sign of his food, or even his tea for that matter. How long does it take to cook a couple cheeseburgers? Chuck could cook a dozen on his grill in less than 10 minutes. He flagged Crystal down and asked her if his food might be coming out soon.

“Oh, we’re still in the three-hour window, sweetie,” Crystal said, smiling again. “You just sit tight.”

Chuck didn’t chuckle this time “Yeah, OK, it’s a good joke. Three-hour window, cable guy. But seriously, I gotta get back to work soon. Think you could check on my order? Maybe bring back a basket of crackers or something I can nibble on in the meantime?”

“We’ll be happy to provide some add-ons, like crackers,” Crystal said. “But we’ll have to charge you a little more. Maybe we could talk about some of our different plans and options. What are you looking for from your meal here, darlin?”

Chuck scrunched his face up. “What am I lookin’ for from my meal? What kinda question is that? I’m lookin’ to eat it! What the hell you think I’m lookin’ for from my meal?”

“Let me go chat with my manager and we’ll see what we can do to fill those needs.”

Chuck started to say something but Crystal had already taken off. Well, maybe she was going to get his order. He hoped so, anyway.

Chuck sat and waited for his food, drummed his fingers on the table, fiddled with his cell phone, listened to his stomach growl.  Five minutes passed, then another five minutes, then five more and five after that. No sign of Crystal. No sign of his food. When she finally came back by she just smiled at Chuck and said, “three-hour window, sweetie. You just sit tight.”

Well, to hell with it. Chuck got up and walked out. Just walked out without even telling anybody. He’d never come back here, that’s a sure bet. Nearly an hour, his whole lunch break, and he still hadn’t had a bite. Whatever. He’d stop by the McDonald’s drive-thru and grab a couple burgers there, eat them in the van on his way to the next job.

Three-hour window. Damned if he’d ever go to that diner again.

He pulled into the McDonald’s and ordered two Big Macs, a large fries and a large Coke. He pulled up to the service window and was greeted by a pimply young fella with a long neck who took Chuck’s money and gave him back some change.

“When would you like your food, sir?” Young Fella said.

“Excuse me?” Chuck said.

“When would you like to get your food?”

“When? When do you think? Right now, that’s when!”

“We can give you a three-hour window of between now and 5 p.m. If you’ll just pull up to the curb….”

“Three-hour win….oh, I see. My cable TV truck. That’s funny, son. Now, how about you just give me my food and I’ll be on my merry….”

“Please pull ahead, sir.”

Chuck was a pretty patient and fun-loving guy, but his patience and love of fun had finally taken the big dive into the smoking volcano.

“Look here boy, I ain’t in the mood for jokes,” he said. “If you want to keep your job you better give me my damn food or I’ll personally call the goddamn CEO of McDonald’s and….”

But Young Fella shut the service window and walked away. Thirty seconds later a security guard walked up to Chuck’s van and bent his head inside.

“Sir, if you don’t mind pulling up to the curb there, somebody’ll be happy to bring your order to your van,” the guard said. “There’s quite a line of cars behind you.”

“How long’s it gonna take? I’m in a hurry.”

“We’ll give you a three-hour window.”

“Aw hell, another joker,” Chuck said, then pulled his van forward into one of the parking spots designated for losers who didn’t get their food at the window.

Ten minutes later Chuck was still parked there. He looked at his watch. He had to get to the next job, and his three-hour window was shrinking fast. He stomped inside the McDonald’s, demanded his food, was told his order was still within the three-hour window, demanded his money back, was told there would be a 20% cancellation fee, argued about it, lost the argument, got 80% of his money back, hustled out to his van, got in, cranked it up, and hauled ass to the nearest 7-11, where he’d grab a couple damn microwave burritos and split.

He hurried inside the 7-11, stepped quickly to the burrito section, grabbed a couple burritos with meat and green chiles inside, threw them in the microwave and nuked them. He placed them in front of the cashier and tossed a twenty on the counter. He checked his watch and felt his blood pressure rise. Damn near 2:30 and he hadn’t even eaten yet. The cashier stood there looking bored, staring straight ahead, doing nothing.

“You wanna ring those up, chief?” Chuck said. “Kinda in a hurry.”

“Sorry, sir, you’ll have to make an appointment for checkout,” the cashier said. “I can have you rung up sometime during the three-hour window.”

Chuck stared at him. What was it with people today? What had gotten into the air?

“That joke’s old, buddy,” Chuck said. “Just ring the damn order up.”

“Sorry, sir, you’ll have to make an appointment for checkout,” the cashier repeated. “I can have you rung up sometime during the three-hour window.”

“Listen you son-of-a….”

“Sorry, sir, you’ll have to make an appointment for checkout,” the cashier said. “I can have you rung up sometime during the three-hour window.”

Chuck resisted the urge to reach across the counter and punch the guy. Instead, he swiped his twenty off the counter and stomped outside. There was a grocery store just across the parking lot and he’d go there, grab a large bag of Doritos and a deli sandwich, take it to the self-checkout where you don’t have to deal with people.

When he reached the grocery he headed to the deli. He went to the sandwich rack but noticed it was all locked up in a glass case. A sign on the case said, “Three-hour window for sandwiches is currently in effect. Sit tight!” Chuck did a double take and felt himself get a little dizzy. He walked to where the bread and rolls were and they were locked up as well. Same glass case, same sign. All the chip shelves were locked behind glass too, and the snacks, and the candy, and the canned goods, produce, meat, fish. Even the damn milk and beer and soda coolers were locked up. Same signs everywhere:

“Three-hour window for items is currently in effect.”

Chuck felt his knees buckle and his head spin. He tried to suck in air but it was hard, he could barely breathe. He saw people standing around, rigid, motionless, staring at him. Why where they staring at him? They looked weird, creepy. He staggered outside to the parking lot, made his way to his van and got in. He shoved his key in the ignition but it wouldn’t start. He tried it again, grinded the engine. He turned on his radio to see if the battery was dead. A voice on the radio said:

“Three-hour window for vehicle ignition is currently in effect. Sit tight!”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! NO NO!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Chuck grabbed his cell phone and called his girlfriend, Luisa. She picked up after two rings and said hello.

“Baby, thank God you’re there,” Chuck said. “Listen, weird things are happening, can’t explain it. I need you to come pick me up, AY-ESS-AY-PEE. Like right now, this second. Drop whatever you’re doing and lickety split it over here. Can’t start my van. Can’t get food. Just weird, weird things going on.”

“Aw baybee, whassa matter? Where you at?” Luisa said.

“I’m over on South Boulevard, you know by the Publix and the 7-11. Come quick.”

“Baybee, donchoo worry. I’ll be there within the next three hours. You just sit tight.”

Chuck pulled the phone back, stared at it like it was a viper, brought it back up to his face.

“Three….you can’t come now?”

“Baybee, I’ll be there during the three-hour window. You sit tight, don’t go anywhere.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! NO NO!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Chuck tossed the phone on the floor and scrambled out of the van. A dream. It had to be a dream. A bad dream. Best answer, only answer: A bad dream.

Chuck knew what would happen. He’d start running and not get anywhere and then he’d be naked and then something bad would happen that would wake him up. Something violent, like getting hit by a car. He’d wake up as soon as he got hit by a car. Like that blue Chevy right there, zipping into the parking lot like there was no tomorrow. What would happen is, the Chevy would come straight for Chuck, like it was doing right now, and Chuck would try to run out of the way but his feet would get stuck, and…

You don’t really hear the collision, or even feel it. Not when it’s that quick. It sort of happens without you even realizing it. The car skids into you and you can’t move in time and that’s it. Game over. You’re here, then gone.

Well, at least it was over. Chuck didn’t have to worry anymore about the thing everybody worries about from the moment they know what it is. The thing we all fear the most had happened to Chuck. It was done, done and done, and he’d never have to think about it again.

And even better news: up ahead was the Pearly Gates, in all their magnificent, sun-kissed glory. Just like in the books. High in the heavens, perched on a cloud, blue skies above and as far as the eye could see. Chuck sighed in relief. He hadn’t exactly lived the purest life on earth, what with the divorces and carousing and all the beer and late nights and betting on football. But he’d done as good as he could and tried not to hurt anybody and worked pretty hard during those three-hour windows — most of the time, anyway.

So, this was his final reward: Eternal salvation in the upstairs suite.

He got to the pearly gates, introduced himself as Chuck, and told St. Peter or whoever it was that he was happy to be here and looking forward to the afterlife.

“You probably need to check me in, huh?” Chuck said, chuckling. “Take my name, address, driver’s license number.”

“Well,” said the Saint, “first let’s make an appointment. How about Tuesday? We can have you checked in between 4 and 7, during the….”

“No,” Chuck said. “Please…”

“…..three-hour window.”

6 Comments

      1. It is….but we’ve been fortunate to get amazingly prompt service on the few times we needed them.

        Cool story, by the way. Glad the words are still flowing even if the main project is stalled.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you, I appreciate it. Sometimes you just have to step back from what you think you need to do and write something that you want to instead. I saw some of your poems the other day as well, BTW. Really nice. Hope the book is doing well.

    Like

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