Can't tell you how often stuff like this will happen. Maybe never again.
Apologies to Kaleb Horton, who I'm biting without mercy in this.
There is a dark room, in it a casket-shaped table ringed by chairs. None of them are meant to be comfortable but the one at the head. Mike wasn't ever allowed to sit in that one. The room was an endurance test, where his parade of fuckups and disappointments were all made to dance in front of him. His handlers delighted in reminding him that his third strike had been five strikes ago.
But the boss liked him enough to keep him around. Mike would always have that, whether his last name was Benning or Banner or Brotzmann or Baxter, like it had been for the last couple of years.
The fuckups would always be there, burning like shame's blush. Only the sting had gone down in the years. Enough of them without a Reckoning and they began not to matter as much. The Boss liked him, and he'd been valuable enough.
He sat there in the chair that bit at his ass and what he really wanted was some tequila. But he wasn't allowed that anymore. He'd kept clean. Sure. He'd burned through cover stories and families as easily as he used to go through a pack of smokes. But he didn't smoke anymore, not since Tecate and Ernesto screwed up a load bad enough that he'd gotten a necktie of rubber and gasoline. Mothers even made the poor bastard light his own fire with a Marlboro. Mike could still smell that when he woke up in the middle of the night. Gasoline and tobacco and skin all going up like grandma left the turkey in self-clean cycle.
He could pump his own gas now, years later, but not tobacco. The smell set him to gagging at the memory.
"Next one's yours," the Jefe had told him, knowing that a second warning was as unnecessary as a second sunrise.
Mike pushed the thought out of his head. He'd shown those assholes up, though. He turned the next load into his ticket out of the game. And, sure, he kept a key for himself before he turned the rest in to San Diego PD who kicked it up to FBI. How the hell would they ever know? And sure, it sent some dudes to jail. Hell, it sent some to the hole in TJ and not the part that the cartel ran like some kind of narco hotel. Yeah, Nails went there. Mike's own videotaped testimony made sure of that.
Mike was pretty sure that he'd never be recognized. His voice sounded like the Incredible Melting Man's third reel and his face was this swirling gray garble. Nobody could recognize him. That's what they promised, anyways.
He wondered when the Boss would show up, but he didn't dare get out of the chair. He wanted a drink, a shot but where he snorted up a rail instead of salt, and the lime was passed by a kiss by that hot number he'd spent a week with in Rosarito. She could stretch a bikini, yes, sir. And that was the drink he wanted. Jimmy Buffet didn't know shit about Margaritaville.
The paper hit the table with a slap that jerked him out of the reverie. No beach, no hot number and most disappointingly, no rail. He licked his lips without thought and they felt like a dead man's. Never mind how he knew the feeling, but he did all the way to his bones.
"Good news, Mike," came the voice. "You've been renewed for another season." The Boss stood behind him, not in the comfortable big chair. The big hands rested on Mike's shoulders with a weight that dragged and controlled, bending bone and will.
Mike's multiple careers had grown tiresome. Sure, it was fun at first, pretending to be a goofball dad, a goofball dad who was Santa Claus, some goofball selling tools, a goofball talking god damned toy and finally All-American Dad. That was his favorite role. Man, he got to be high and mighty and right all the time and he was untouchable. That was the shit. As good as the fine flake.
Okay, nothing was as good as that, but it was close enough that he could lie to himself about it.
"Renewed? But I thought it was over?" He tried to remember why it had ended last time. There was something but it was a runny blank like videotape that had been recorded over too many times, a copy of a copy of a copy that was hardly more than snow. It wasn't a big room, not much bigger than this one.
"Oh, Mike," the Boss said with a gravel grave voice. "You don't get to quit. You might fall off the wagon from time to time. Detroit, you remember how that went? All that blood? And the youngest. We still don't know all of what happened, do we? We just know they found you. And what did it take?"
Mike choked up and wanted to vomit. There wasn't even a name for what happened to that kid. What was his name, Ross or Rupert or some shit like that.
"Mike, why did that boy die?"
"Because I got drunk."
"Be fair. It wasn't just drunk, was it? You can't fall off easy, can you?" The big man sat down in the one comfortable chair like every bone in his body wasn't screaming for cocaine. "You were in that hotel for a week before we found you, but not before the Cartel found them."
"You said they'd be safe," Mike said flatly, utterly without dimension.
"Oh, Mike. That was your responsibility. We did everything we could. But when you get to talking, well, there's not a force on earth to keep the Cartel from hearing it. They'd chase you into the heart of a dead star, Mike. They would upend creation. We can only forestall the inevitable. And you're valuable, so--"
"So you'll keep saving me."
"As long as we can. But even we can't save you from yourself. Not forever. You have to do that."
Mike's throat quivered within him, wanting only the sweet burn that preceded the rush of oblivion. He coughed once, unable to hold it back.
"And this last one, well it was bad, wasn't it?"
"I was weak," Mike said with a voice that was smaller than a doll's.
"IT WAS BAD," the voice said, so big it filled the room and turned bones to jelly.
"I'll be good now. I'll be good. I won't ever--"
"You will, Mike. We both know you will. But you'll hold it together enough to be that dad that nobody loves, but desperately craves. You'll be dad to America again."
A vision of a borderlands beach unfurled on the other side of Mike's tears. The ocean roared and droned like blood in his ears, bluer even than the sky. Scattered clouds like bones from mismatched bodies crisscrossed the cobalt expanse above him. There was tequila and roasted lobster and women and drugs. All that he'd ever needed or wanted.
"Are you listening?" The Boss' voice cut through the imaginary beach with the force of an atomic bomb, ripping everything to shreds of ash and cinders.
Mike hated him at this moment. Mike hated everything at this moment. All the deals at had brought him here, all the betrayals. He hated the Cartel, but even more he hated being America's Dad. He knew it was a lie, a dance performed for others. He knew that the people who watched it believed in it sincerely, even those who hate-watched to complain about it. They loved the lie, but he could no longer.
"I'm listening. I was just thinking about the approach. Maybe take it even further, this whole Dad thing. Let's go stern, let's go unforgiving. It's what the audience wants."
The Boss smiled at that. "Nice to see you getting into your work, your chosen role, once more. It's been a long time."
"Two words: No mercy. That's the phrase for this season."
"I like it. We'll run it past the boys downstairs. Tell 'em to get all Old Testament."
"Vengeful God, yeah." Mike told them what they wanted to hear, what they needed to hear. Even if it was a lie. Especially if it was a lie. If he could turn around a dead end life like his and let it grow into moral authority and assurance for a nation, he could...
He could do anything. He could even do this, long enough for his handlers to let their guard down just a moment. Then he could slip away as he'd done before. He could unleash his appetites and his thirst and suckle oblivion, just enough, just enough to quiet the desire for another couple of years. Margaritaville awaited and it was patient. The Cartel hadn't found him yet. Sure, they found those cardboard cutout families and had their way with them. But that was the way it went. Keep the lead, drop everyone else, let them get liquidated.
He was a survivor.
"Good to see you come around, Mike. We'll start filming in a couple weeks. Bring some of this new fire to things. America needs you, man."
He was the last man standing. He would be that forever.