Limited Growth Potential

This story is part of the Collected Stories of Ramsbolt.

Although it contains no spoilers, it is best enjoyed by readers who have met the characters before.

The site you proposed does not meet our demographic requirements for household income and education. There is limited growth potential.

Arvil wiped sweat from his temple with a handkerchief yellowed by age and cheap laundry detergent. He threw it down on the edge of his desk but the thin fabric didn’t offer a slam enough to satisfy his ire.

 

It was hotter than Hades but he refused to turn on the window air conditioner in his tiny, stuffy den until his sons finished moving twenty-two years of crap out of their bedrooms and into the U-Haul that dripped oil on his driveway. He wasn’t air conditioning the great outdoors. He just hoped they’d get to it before 1991 rolled into 1992.

Limited growth potential.

 

He folded the letter and tucked it in the folder on his blotter, but the smooth manila folder didn’t soften anything. He’d only have to open it to read it again anyway, like he had for days, steeping in the humiliation of degrading rejection. There was something satisfying about stewing in it.

The site you proposed does not meet our requirements for household income and education.

 

If he could stay mad about it long enough, he might not make the same mistake again of getting sucked in by some big out-of-town gimmick. All he managed to do was get his hopes up about being rid of that giant money pit on the edge of town. Maine, God love them, wanted their tax money whether he was making any or not.

 

“Dickheads. What do they know?”

 

The tiny distant voice in his head that always sounded like Deb told him to put the letter back in the drawer. Stop looking at it, if it pissed him off so much. But there was something motivating about being wound up. Like one of those little toy cars with the plastic screw sticking out of the side. The tighter he twisted, the further he would go once he started moving.

 

But this time, there was no more moving forward. The Big Box Store issued their final no and that big plot of land would sit there empty. More money out. No money in.

 

If they didn’t want to build a giant store full of cheap garbage on his land, they shouldn’t have asked what he wanted for it. They shouldn’t have made him put on fancy pants and drive down there to show it to them in the middle of the damn summer. It wasted his time, and time was money. Dammit.

 

Two-point-two million dollars would have looked gorgeous in his bank account. Now it was going to someone else because a bunch of assholes figured Ramsbolt didn’t have enough disposable income. He had plenty of disposable income, but the last thing he would ever do was spend it on them.

 

Smash. Crack.

 

Malcolm, the clumsier of his twin sons, pushed a creaky hand cart past the den. It thumped against the wall again and glass chattered in a loosely packed box. Arvil flipped the knob on his wood-toned Sony Radio and R.E.M. screamed about “Shiny Happy People” over his son’s destruction.

“It’s gonna cost me more to fix this house when they’re gone than it cost me to put them through college,” he muttered. He couldn’t be heard over all the banging boxes and bags scraping down the hall anyway. “Kids never learned the value of anything.”

Deb would have hated them moving out. Her twins moving all the way to Florida. Everything she did was for those boys. She sewed their clothes. Drew animals on scraps of paper and packed them in their lunch boxes. She would have wanted them here, in Ramsbolt, running businesses and managing the properties they worked so hard for. Just like she would have wanted that humiliating, demeaning letter back in the filing cabinet where it wouldn’t taunt him.

He slammed the file shut and flung open the bottom drawer to his desk. Folders with tabs and neat handwriting, all caps and no fuss, lunged to the front. In the middle, he found the one for the property on the edge of town and threw the file in. In the back was the folder from Deb, her curly script announcing her letters within. He cherished those more than anything, but couldn’t bring himself to read a single one. He hadn’t touched that folder since the day after her funeral.

The drawer closed with a bang.

Who was he kidding? Deb would have loved this, the boys moving from the top of the country to the bottom. She supported everything they ever wanted. If it hadn’t been for her being so damn supportive, he wouldn’t even have the land to try to sell to those assholes. He wouldn’t own that huge slice of the town’s pie. If she’d been less supportive, he would have toughed it out in middle management, sitting in annual reviews hearing how he was too rude for the working world because he wouldn’t take anybody’s shit. But Deb stood with him while he took a risk with that second mortgage. They ate peanut butter for months. Two apartments on Main Street turned into six and then into land, and she would have been so proud that they could afford to send their twins to college without a loan.

Bang.

 

A tea-colored picture of Deb in a thin mother-of-pearl frame tumbled from its shelf to the floor. Arvil shoved his seat back, the old wheels catching in the carpet, and got up to rescue the photograph. She’d be safer on the desk until those boys were done making a mess of everything. What was he going to do about it anyway? Yell at them? Tell them to stop moving out? He stuck the tip of his tongue between his good molar and his crown.

Don’t be a dick, his old boss used to say to him. Everybody is doing their best. Try to be understanding.

 

Understanding while they tear holes in his walls.

He grabbed the stack of mail from the edge of his desk. Those greedy people he hired to paint the trim of his shops on Main Street had sent their invoice. They did a good enough job. Maybe they charged a little more than he wanted, but it was worth having buildings he could be proud of and work he didn’t have to supervise. There were a few rent checks from the people who lived above the video store, and the woman who ran that clothing shop. The rent check from the gal who leased that tiny place above the sandwich store had sent a letter, too. Her sixty-days notice. Moving to Otley to start a new job. Figures.

Then there was Helen’s rent check.

The smallest source of his income was Helen’s lease. She rented the plot of land at the corner, across from the motel and smack dab at the only intersection with a red light. She’d been running a diner there since he could remember. He’d lowered her lot rent when she came in sobbing that her husband left her, and he never bothered to raise it again because the diner had been more valuable to him than having a vacant brick building at the entrance to town. Now she was turning it into a bar. Like the town needed a bar!

Whack.

 

Arvil shoved his seat back and it hit the wall. He exploded from the den into the hallway, clinging to the door frame, but the boys were gone. He heard the creaky cart lurch over the threshold and onto the front step.

 

“Damn kids go off to college and they come back here long enough to pack their shit, break my house, and run away.” Sweat dripped from his thinning hair onto the dingy carpet.

 

All the kids were leaving. The Reynolds’ kids. The Andrews’ daughters. They all went off to college, got smart about business and enterprise, then ran off to some city like ungrateful brats.

 

“Michael!” He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

 

The oldest twin dragged the empty hand cart into the hallway and froze. “Dad. Sorry about all the noise. Malcolm’s—”

 

“Clumsy and messing up my hallway.”

 

A line ran down the wall like a child had been given black chalk and a free pass to run amok. A chunk of sheetrock lay on the floor and a white chalky ding stood out against the tan paint. It was just one more thing in the loss column.

 

“You know, I could take a For Lease sign off a building on Main Street if the two of you would just stay here and run a damn business instead of beating up my house on your way out.”

That familiar wash of exasperation drained Michael’s face, pissing Arvil off even more. Michael let go of the hand cart and it rested on its own. “Not this again. Florida isn’t icy and freezing and sad half the year.”

“Christ. Didn’t they show you that documentary about climate change in college, where you got so smart? Stick around long enough and Maine will be Florida.”

Malcolm laughed and stuck his head around the corner. “But Kaaaa-tie’s in Florida and Mikey can’t live without her.”

“Shut up.” Michael stepped back onto his brother’s foot. “Get the last bag, doofus. And take this cart and leave it back there.”

Malcolm trudged down the hall, the cart creaking in his wake. Arvil didn’t stand in his way.

“He’s not wrong, Dad. I want to see where things will go with Kate.” Michael shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He stood tall, like his mother, and despite all that moving he hadn’t broken a sweat.

“You can see things just as well from Ramsbolt.”

“There’s nothing here for her. She’s a marine biologist. We don’t have any water.”

Arvil gripped the door trim, letting his anger out on the soft pine. “What’s so wrong with Maine? Maine has water. No self-respecting man chases a girl around the country.”

“What’s the big deal about Ramsbolt, anyway? It’s got, like, 200 residents. Anyone with a brain is leaving. Jesus, Dad. For all you’ve accomplished here, think of what you could have done if you lived in someplace with more real estate to play with.”

He held in a deep breath of thick, hot air. He’d asked himself that same question. After Deb died. When the boys went to school. Last week, when they said they were moving to Florida. It was easy enough to admit to himself that he had no roots anywhere else, that he liked growing up here and being accepted for who he was. Even that he would struggle to compete in any other town. But it was harder to admit that he didn’t get the rush he used to get when he outbid a buyer or someone came grovelling because they needed something. It just didn’t feel like it used to.

Arvil pushed spent air through the corner of his mouth in a half sigh, half grunt. “This isn’t about me. Everything this town did for you, and all you can do is ask me why I like it here. The real question is why you don’t.”

“I’m not gonna argue with you before we leave.” Michael’s jaw was set. “I just want to say a pleasant goodbye and move to someplace sunny.”

It wouldn’t do a bit of good to point out the perfectly sunny day and the fact that the house had been full of stagnant tropical air since they opened the door and started packing that damn truck.

Arvil wobbled on his heel and turned to his desk, snarling under his breath. Everybody leaving town, eating away my bottom line. They should all move into a big box store and live off cheap snacks and cut-rate furniture.

 

But he couldn’t let his sons leave the house, leave Ramsbolt where they got a good education, and run off to some spring break city without laying down a piece of his mind. He’d held it in for a week while it boiled and festered inside of him like a puss-filled cyst of fury. It was gonna stink like hell when he finally burst. Ungrateful kids. Like the town was something they had to escape from. Like he was some kind of blight to be abandoned.

He fevered with the adrenaline rush and balled his hands into fists. “It’s your loss, you know. All that property could have been yours. Ten shops on Main Street. Eighteen apartments. Two big plots of land. The land that bar sits on. Those houses people rent. It all coulda been yours.”

“Come on, Dad.” Michael rolled his eyes.

“You would have inherited it all, but I can’t leave it to someone who hates this town and lives in Florida. Your mother would have wanted you here. To be property managers and take care of what we built for you.”

Michael wore the exasperated disbelief of an over-educated young adult being told his privilege and theories weren’t enough in the real world. “You know that’s not true. She wouldn’t—” He threw up a hand. “I don’t want to argue with you.”

Avril had some harsh truths for him, but he knew his son was right about Deb. But for the wrong reasons. His face seared with a fierce anger. He clenched his hands and let his palms soak with sweat. “You boys were too young when Deb died to know what she’d have wanted for you, but she wanted the best. And property values keep slipping and there won’t be anything left to inherit if you people don’t stop leaving.” His voice reached a booming pitch that spun in the hallway.

Malcolm slinked out the door of his childhood bedroom, gripping the nylon handle of an old duffle bag over his shoulder. He brushed against the wall and a piece of art from the 70s, a canvas painted brown with string art in the shape of a mushroom, tilted to the side, leaving a small streak of color behind. The blistering abscess of ire within Arvil cracked and he welled with hot anger, like waking on a summer night, sweating under a dozen blankets. He flung out his arms, throwing them off one by one, grasping for relief. Rage for losing Deb, the only rock he ever had. The burning shame of a demeaning letter telling him he wasn’t good enough. His land wasn’t good enough. His sons and their careless, carefree abandonment of his town, as if the life he gave them and all his hard work weren’t good enough.

It all spewed out in a thundering rage. For all of his five-foot-eight frame, his voice was a baritone furor that filled the house and shook the walls. “Stop destroying my house and destroying my town!”

“What the hell, Dad?” Michael grabbed Malcolm’s arm and pulled him down the hallway. “We’re going to drive away in, like, ten minutes and you’re going to be alone. Forever. In this house. It hasn’t changed since we were born. Same brown carpet—”

“It’s grey!”

“It used to be grey. It’s gross. The curtains smell like nineteen sixty three.”

Arvil held his breath and willed his vision to steady. Pinholes of light pierced the old orange curtains, and the living room beyond his son was a chamber of constellations. “Your mother made those curtains.”

“Nothing ever changes. You never change. You can’t pull ten minutes of nice out of your ass? You gotta stick with angry and bitter, huh?” Michael pointed to the office door. “The only thing that matters to you is that shit on your desk. More money in, less money out.”

Arvil waved a hand. “You don’t know anything about running a property or the value of money. You had everything handed to you.”

Michael’s nostrils flared. He’d hit a nerve. His oldest son had been a stoic kid. Never cried when he fell off his bike. Didn’t whimper when he got smacked in the head with that softball. But when his nostrils flared, he had reached the limits of his patience. “It’s not my fault I got an education and still have some respect left for the rest of the world.”

“Respect?” Arvil raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been building an empire over here and the two of you are acting like ungrateful brats.”

Michael rocked on his heels, his hands in his back pockets. He looked at the floor but Arvil knew better than to assume he’d accepted defeat. That kid had never accepted defeat. But neither had Arvil.

“Dad, this isn’t about any of that. We could move back here in three years. Katie and I could break up. Malcolm could come back here without me. What’s this really about?”

“It’s about you being so damn defiant.”

“Everything’s packed.” Malcolm leaned around the corner, his hand on the wall. “You ready? It’s a ten hour drive to that motel in Delaware and sunlight’s burning.”

“Yeah. I’m coming. As fast as I can.”

Malcolm reached past his brother and stuck out a hand. “Take it easy, Pop. See you at Christmas. Just a few months, right?”

“Right.” Arvil’s mouth twisted in a contorted sort of smile. It was the best he could muster for the son who always tagged along. Malcolm meant no harm. He shook his youngest son’s hand.

 

But Michael stood firm, his chin raised. “I don’t know why you have to make this so hard, Dad.”

 

Arvil locked eyes with him. It was the last chance to take a swing, to strike a blow, to be felt and heard and seen by the son who had absolutely nothing to offer in return for everything he’d been given.

“Because it’s mutinous, what you’re doing.”

“Like this is a country at war?” Michael laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. When it faded all that was left was a wry grin that painted half of his face, like a villain in a movie who thought he’d gained the upper hand. “The only thing I’m acting out against is the greedy, angry, bitter man you’ve become. You think the more you invest in this town, the more it owes you. You’ll never get a return on that kind of emotional investment. Not on greed and anger.”

 

“Who do you think—”

 

“No. I’m not leaving it like this, without saying what I gotta say. You think validation comes from your bank account, but it isn’t real and your ego is starving. So you just keep searching for more. Your soul is starving. You’ll never get enough of anything as long as ego is the only thing you try to feed.”

 

Arvil didn’t care anymore. He was done making all the effort. He shoved his hand into his back pocket and peeled his wallet from his too-loose yet somehow too wet and clingy khakis. He pulled a fifty from the wad of bills and threw his wallet at his desk. It missed and landed open on the floor, coupons and coins scattered on the floor.

 

He dangled the fifty out for Michael.

 

“Here’s a grant to get you started. Don’t mess it up.”

 

Michael accepted the bill and folded it in half. Something in the motion was sad and final, but Arvil wouldn’t admit it.

 

He turned his back on his son, facing the desk where Deb was frozen in an eternal smile in a mother-of-pearl frame. The bottom desk drawer had inched open. It never stayed closed. He’d have to figure out how to fix it one day.

 

“See you at Christmas, Dad.”

 

Arvil filled his lungs with air from his den. Thick and stagnant. Humid but empty somehow. The front door squeaked open and clicked when it closed.

 

Down the hall, the living room was dark again. Guided by the constellations that bled through the curtains, he shuffled along the once-grey carpet and found the edge of one tattered orange drape. He threw it aside.

Malcolm in the driver’s seat, Michael to his side, they backed down the driveway and aimed right. Toward the main road. Toward the highway. A puff of exhaust lingered by the curb.

 

Arvil pulled the curtain shut.

 

Back in the den, he stepped over the coupons and coins, and pounded the buttons on the air conditioner. It rattled and buzzed. He fell into his chair and heaved it forward, sliding his legs under the desk where he’d built his empire. He slammed the drawer shut and file folders crashed to the back of the drawer on their metal track. The drawer crept open again.

 

That file. The one for that property on the edge of town. It peeked out of its folder.

 

He spread it out on the desk before him and smoothed the page with a steady hand.

 

There is limited growth potential.

© 2019 by Jennifer M. Lane

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