THE CLOUD GAME
Carter had been ordered to attend anger management. He didn’t need it, but those family-law judges always sided with the woman. His group met on the patio of the Tempe First Methodist Church every Wednesday at noon. Carter was five minutes late and he could feel the sweat slaloming down his bony ribcage and pooling at his tightly-cinched belt as he double-timed it across the flagstones to the group table.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Carter,” Emery Dodds said. “Please, sit down.” Dodds was their leader. Tanned, crew-cut, flat belly, he looked more like a golf pro than a counselor. Carter hated him.
“Sorry. Unexpected emergency.” Carter said. Carter was no stranger to emergencies. A service professional for CompUSA, he had just restored a laptop that had gone blue-screen. He re-positioned the strings of hair that had slid off the top of his head and checked to make sure his epaulets were straight. He pulled out the chair next to Quigley—the farthest seat from Dodds.
“Today we’re going to play the cloud game,” Dodds said, rubbing his hands together.
Carter tried not to sigh. He looked around the table, careful to avoid eye-contact with Dodds. Kimball, who took a Louisville slugger to his girlfriend’s Miata after he’d caught her with his younger brother, looked stoned as he studied his pencil. Radley, a tax accountant who tried to strangle a customer-service rep when he got bumped from a United flight, stared at Dodds like he was getting instructions for his CPA exam. And Quigley, the truck driver—he’d thrown his beer through the flat-panel at Maggiano’s after that Korean pitcher for the D-Backs had blown another save—was chewing on a hangnail like he hadn’t eaten in a month.
“Carter, it’s your turn,” Dodds said. “Pick a cloud.”
Carter looked around. There were a few white wisps on the horizon. He shook his head and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “How about those, behind Squaw Peak?”
“I think that’s smog,” Radley said.
“Radley…” Dodds frowned at him.
Radley’s eyes flashed. He clenched his hands until the knuckles turned white and then stared down at the table.
“Okay, Carter. Now what I want you to do is share with us again the incident that brought you here. Then send it up to your cloud so it can be blown away. How’s that sound?”
Carter’s lips fluttered horse-like before he could stop them. “Sounds like the traffic game we played last week, only with clouds. And neither one was a goddamn game.”
Dodd’s eyebrows pinched. He reached for his clipboard. “Carter….”
“Okay, okay.” Carter held up his hand. “I’m driving with my wife, Martha. We’re heading up to Flag for the weekend. I got the radio turned to KMLE, they’re doing the country countdown, and Martha says, ‘I’m not listening to that country bullshit all the way to Flag.’” Carter’s face got all pinched and his voice went up an octave for Martha’s speech. “Then she turns the damn radio to KDKB.”
“That ain’t right. Hope you set her straight,” Quigley said.
“Dude, nothing wrong with KDKB.” Kimball said, turning towards Quigley. “Your old lady digs the hard rock, eh, Carter?” Kimball started drumming on the table to some imaginary tune playing in his head.
Radley reached over and flattened Kimball’s hands, silencing his finger drum. “Radio control is the driver’s prerogative.”
“Gentlemen, this is Carter’s story,” Dodds said. “Carter, please continue.”
“We compromised and turned it to KOOL.”
Quigley nodded thoughtfully. “Oldies. That’s fair.”
“The first song that comes on is ‘Signs,’ by the Five Man Electrical Band.”
“Never heard of them,” Kimball said.
“Are you shitting me, Kimball?” Quigley said. “Those guys were huge in the seventies.”
Kimball shrugged and resumed his drumming. “I was born in eighty-five.”
Radley was ready to flatten Kimball’s hands again, but Dodds gave him a look. “They were a protest band,” Radley said, with his Jack Webb just-the-facts monotone. “The song’s about a young man who tucks his hair under his cap and gets hired by a bigot who doesn’t want any longhaired freaks working for him.”
“That’s right,” Carter said. “When they get to the second verse,” Carter brings his hand up to his mouth like it’s a microphone, “I sing, Sign says anyone caught dressin passive, will be shot on sight, and Martha laughs at me. Says it’s tresspassin, not dressin’ passive. I say no, it’s ironic—getting shot for being a pacifist. She says those boys were smug teenagers, thought they had everything figured out. Didn’t do irony, she says. Tells me I’m always finding irony where there is none. So I stop the car and say, very calmly, ‘Dressin passive, you ironic dumbass bitch,’ and then I get out of the goddamn car and walk home.” Carter sensed his voice might be getting loud. He gulped his ice water. His hand trembled.
“So why you doing this anger gig, dude?” Kimball asked.
The vein in Carter’s temple throbbed. “Judge said my actions constituted a ‘life-threatening situation’ because goddamn Martha got out of the car and tried to weave through four lanes of rush-hour traffic. How was I supposed to know she didn’t bring her car keys?” Carter pounded the table, knocking over Quigley’s ice-water.
Dodds held up his hand as though offering a blessing. “The cloud, Carter. Let it go with the cloud.”
Quigley draped his heavy arm over Carter’s back. “She’s right, it was ‘tresspassing,’ but your line’s better.”
“Yeah dude, that was awesome. You should be a songwriter,” Kimball said.
Radley reached across the table and clenched Carter’s hand. “Very nice irony, Carter.”
Dodds smiled beatifically. Carter had a lump in his throat and his eyes misted as he scanned the horizon. The spring desert had a soft-green cast and the fresh-scent of aloe wafted over the group. The sky was a vibrant blue.
There was not a cloud in sight.
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