Given his druthers, there were only two places that Tanner would drink, one where he would meet his co-workers and one where he would not. There was no crossover between the two; they remained two separate drinking worlds.
The first world was a sunny, popular place uptown called Crickets, a place full of laughter, smiling faces and youthful exuberance, a place where young adults would come together to cast off the cares of the working day and revel in the company of others. Tanner did not go there to drink after his meeting with the CEO.
Instead he went to Paulie’s, a local dive around the block from his apartment building. Actually, to call Paulie’s a dive was unfair as Paulie did keep the place clean and generally ran a tight ship. One could feel safe there. But it certainly didn’t cater to the same clientele as Crickets.
It was in the basement of the building, Tanner had to walk down some non-descript steps to get to its entrance and there was no ostentatious indication that it was there. Just a small sign that read, Paulie’s Bar. The interior also lacked flair. By virtue of the nature of its entrance very little light from outside made it to the interior, even on a sunny afternoon such as this one. The lights were dim in the interior as well, which walked hand in hand with the intended atmosphere.
At Paulie’s it was understood that you were not there to laugh or make life-long friends. You were there to drink. Tanner was the only regular who could be remotely considered a Yuppie, which might have made his initial appearance a source of consternation to the bar’s other denizens, but Paulie liked him, and that—combined with his respect for the other patron’s privacy—made him welcome there.
At Paulie’s things went unspoken far more often than they went spoken. It was a kingdom of non-verbal communication. A nod meant, “Hello.” Sitting on the stool meant, “Please pour me my drink.” A double tap on the bar meant, “Another.” Cash left on the bar meant, “I’ve had a good evening. Thanks again for your consistently excellent service and you can count on my custom again on some future night.” Once Paulie knew what you wanted he kept on giving it to you until you put the cash on the bar. Tanner’s poison of choice was scotch on the rocks, so when he sat at the bar, that was what he received rather than any questions about how his day had gone or why he was five hours earlier than usual.
Even at this early hour Tanner was not Paulie’s only occupant. There was Johnny, of course, who practically lived at Paulie’s. Tanner couldn’t remember a time he had been in Paulie’s and hadn’t seen Johnny. As far as Tanner could tell, drinking was how Johnny made his living. It was mostly Johnny Walker Red, from which he derived his name. Tanner didn’t know Johnny’s real name; it was inappropriate to ask.
Johnny’s typical evening would involve the same ritual. He would take a bottle and a shot glass and sit at a table in the corner, away from the dart board that was never used. He would then proceed to measure out three-quarters of a shot—never more, never less—and sip it, swish the liquor around in his mouth and, after a time, swallow it with eyes closed. The way he drank reminded Tanner of how someone would take the Eucharist at Catholic mass with the possible exception that Johnny was more reverent.
In addition to Johnny there was another person in the bar, a stranger. This stranger was a woman Tanner had seen the night before, had noted as unusual. Not because women didn’t come to Paulie’s, plenty did for much the same reason men went there, but because she was new and her gaze lingered. She seemed interested in the other people in the bar. Tanner was surprised Paulie had let her back in; that kind of interest in other human beings might make the bar’s regulars uncomfortable. Tanner suspected that Paulie was showing a soft touch in this case because the woman was pretty—there weren’t very many lookers at Paulie’s. Or maybe it was because it was so early and the people she might offend weren’t even there. She had a vodka gimlet and lovely green eyes. Tanner had noticed them the night before, had considered them exceptional, and had it been another time and another place, Tanner might have been interested in her.
Time and place. The CEO had talked about those sorts of things. The right time, the right place—so hard to determine. Was he in the right place now? Tanner thought it might be so. Certainly the glass felt cool and good in his hand, and the scotch warm and good down his throat. He finished the drink, tapped twice on the bar and Paulie poured him another.
Paulie was living the dream. He had always been a man of modest ambitions. So he had found it strange when a guidance counselor had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. The whole concept had alarmed him. It had never before occurred to him that he should want to be something in particular. Surely something would come up in the natural course of events, and surely chance and circumstance would have more to do with the end result than Paulie’s wanting ever could.
But Paulie had been possessed of a kind disposition as a youth and had played along with the guidance counselor and told him he wanted to be a lawyer, mostly because he had taken a shine to the latest lawyer show on television. Also one of his father’s drinking buddies had been a lawyer, and he had been a friendly sort of drunk. So, overall, that long ago Paulie had been possessed of a positive impression of lawyers.
The guidance counselor had told him how much education someone had to have to be a lawyer, had left it unsaid but strongly suggested by his tone of voice how unlikely it was that Paulie would be able to complete all that education and so Paulie—being the agreeable sort that he was—had immediately moved on to bartending. After all, the secret mastermind of that week’s lawyer show had been a bartender. And Paulie figured it wouldn’t take that much education. Paulie already knew how long it took his father to sleep off a bender.
Deep down Paulie suspected that this choice he made in junior high school had very little bearing on how his life had turned out, that the similarity between his choice and his future profession was mere coincidence. Paulie was pretty sure that had the guidance counselor been more supportive of his first inclination of lawyer, he still would have ended up behind a bar rather than passing one.
Of course Paulie wasn’t just a bartender, he owned the bar. He wasn’t a criminal mastermind like the bartender on that lawyer show—the name of which he had long ago forgotten—but Paulie thought that being the owner was better. Someone wants a drink you give them a drink. You charge them for the drink. You see yourself making money right there. It was simplicity itself. And it hadn’t required a lot of planning; certainly not enough to require multiple meetings with a guidance counselor.
Sometimes Paulie had fantasies where he was a guidance counselor and young kids would walk into his office and he would tell them, Look, it’s your life. You know what you like. You know what you can do. Find something you like and can do and then do it the best you can as long as you can. Everything else anyone tells you is bullshit. Standing outside, looking in on the fantasy, Paulie realized that he probably wouldn’t be able to say the word “bullshit” to the kids, but he could do the rest. Not that he wanted to be a guidance counselor. Paulie was living the dream.
Paulie gave Tanner a small smile and walked to the other end of the bar to clean some glasses. Tanner pulled out the piece of paper from earlier and looked down at his own handwriting, the small, jagged scrawl that was one printed word after another. He set the paper down on the counter beside him. He still didn’t know what it meant or why he had felt compelled to write it, but he was a patient man. If there was a reason for it, he was confident he’d eventually figure it out. And if it was just a random impulse, meaningless, a byproduct of nothing more than a sudden and improbable discharge of one brain cell to another, well, Tanner supposed he would figure that out eventually, too. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what he would be doing tomorrow in the Ivory Tower, but his mind was curiously blank.
“‘You are doing the right thing,’” a velvet voice came beside Tanner. “Did you write this?”
He looked over to see that the green-eyed woman had sat beside him, a clear breach of Paulie’s etiquette. She had grasped the paper Tanner had set aside in her hands and was wearing a nervous but expectant grin. Tanner wondered what she was expecting. Conversation? Companionship? Here? While Tanner wasn’t so modest as to deny he was more desirable than Johnny or Paulie, it didn’t explain why she was here—at Paulie’s—if her intentions lay in that direction. Her green eyes were locked into his like laser beams and he had a curious sensation that she was seeing into his soul. It made him uncomfortable.
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“Of course it does,” she insisted, pulling the already too close stool nearer to Tanner. “It makes all the difference in the world. Did you write this?”
All the difference in the world? That seemed a bit dramatic. It was just six words on a sheet of paper, and fairly mundane words at that. They read rather like the daily affirmation of a particularly insecure person. They were not anything to get excited about. It wasn’t like finding a winning lottery ticket or receiving a letter from a lover. But the woman seemed sincerely excited.
“Yes, I wrote it,” Tanner conceded, seeing no point in denying it.
“Has anyone else seen it?” she asked.
That was a strange question.
“I don’t know,” Tanner replied. “I don’t think so. Paulie, maybe?”
She turned to Paulie, leaned over the bar and tugged at his shirt. Paulie’s eyes registered alarm. He clearly was not used to this kind of behavior at his bar. He gave the woman a glassy stare to show her that she had his attention.
“Paulie,” she said as if she and Paulie were old friends, “did you see this note?”
Paulie shook his head, his face registering a kind of mild distaste, like he was being made to eat a kind of moldy cheese that wasn’t much to his liking. The woman rummaged through her purse and pulled out a matchbook. She lit a match and set the paper on fire. Paulie and Tanner looked on in wonder. In his corner, Johnny poured himself another three-quarter shot and swished it about in his mouth, blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary was happening. Paulie briskly walked back to the end of the bar, grabbed an ashtray and placed it underneath the burning paper. Tanner was relieved to see that this fire behaved as it should and quickly consumed the paper. Soon there was nothing left of it but smoldering ash.
The woman grabbed a napkin and put it down in front of Tanner. Tanner gave the napkin a blank stare and finished his scotch. Paulie didn’t wait for the double tap, but rotely filled the glass and then poured himself one. He stepped back from the bar, the posture of his shoulders indicating a dismissal. Tanner dropped a twenty on the counter and turned to the woman.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Happiness, comfort, peace on Earth,” the woman smiled. “My name’s Regina. You can call me Reggie.”
“What do you want, Reggie?” Tanner asked.
Her smile faded. “Where’s your sense of humor?” she asked.
Tanner pushed himself back from the bar and stood up. Alarm registered on Paulie’s face. He didn’t like the idea of losing a regular
“Hey,” he said. “Why don’t you stop hassling him?”
Tanner gave Paulie an appreciative smile. It was nice to see that someone was taking his side on something. He was surprised how squeaky Paulie’s voice sounded, though Tanner supposed that was mostly from lack of practice. Reggie flipped her hair over her shoulder as she turned to Paulie. Her hair was a mousy brown color, Tanner noticed. He hadn’t made note of that before; he had been too focused on her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice sympathetic and sincere. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Well, okay then,” Paulie replied, the only indication that he was still upset was a slight increase in the vigor to which he cleaned the shot glass in his hand, and the fact that there was still scotch in it.
Tanner remained standing. He didn’t know what to do next. He didn’t want to go to his apartment, but he couldn’t imagine staying here at Paulie’s either. He was desperate for a third option other than just standing by the bar, poised to leave but going nowhere, looking like an idiot. Paulie and Reggie seemed to be suffering from the same type of paralysis. It was like they were no longer people, but static figures in a painting, unable to ever escape one moment locked in time.
Fortunately, Johnny was not a part of the tableau and felt no obligation to maintain it. That much was clear when he stumbled over to the bar and spilled his drink on Tanner’s shoe. Johnny let out what sounded like a sob at that, the waste of the alcohol just sitting there on Tanner’s shoe, soon to evaporate. What would air do with alcohol? Air had no need to get liquored up. Air had no need to forget, did it?
These kinds of thoughts frightened Johnny, made him want to drink more. Everything made Johnny want to drink more. Being happy made Johnny want to drink. Being sad made Johnny want to drink. When the liquor was running out Johnny would drink because you never knew when the next drink would come. When the liquor was plentiful Johnny would drink because to not drink was a waste of all the good liquor God had provided. He drank on holidays out of respect, he drank on non-holidays because every day you lived to take another breath—or drink—was special and deserving of some sort of recognition. He drank because he was a loving soul and he loved to drink.
But he didn’t love drinking enough to lick the alcohol off of Tanner’s shoe. That was going too far, even for Johnny. Tanner took the napkin Reggie had put in front of him and wiped off his shoe, Johnny’s eyes entranced by the entire display of his alcohol transforming from sweetest ambrosia to a stain on a shoe, to a wadded ball of damp napkin. It was like watching a butterfly’s metamorphosis in reverse, the devolution of beauty. It was heartbreaking. He needed a drink. He took Tanner’s.
Tanner welcomed him to it. He wanted none of it. He was distressingly sober. He nodded to Paulie and walked out of the bar. He still hadn’t decided where he was going to go, so when he walked up the steps and out on the sidewalk he looked about him as if seeking out some kind of sign. He saw a right-lane-must-turn sign but doubted that had any meaning for him.
And then Reggie ran into him. She had hesitated long enough to grab her jacket and purse but had apparently chased after him directly after. Her face was flush with a little exertion, or was it embarrassment? Tanner couldn’t tell. She grabbed his hand with one hand, his arm with the other, forced him to face her.
“I didn’t mean to,” she stumbled over the words. “I haven’t scared you . . . look, I’m not very good at this.”
“I can see that,” Tanner replied and she gave a nervous laugh.
“Is it okay if I see you again?” she asked and her eyes again pierced him. What was it about her eyes? Tanner didn’t have an eye fetish, sometimes had difficulty even recalling the color of long-time acquaintances’ eyes, but these eyes captivated him.
“Maybe,” he replied.
Tanner knew what it was like to be dealing in the opaque.
“Tell me why you burned it,” he said.
She returned an impish smile that suggested much but gave little. It seemed unpracticed, as if she was ill suited to deception but was trying it out to see what all the fuss was about. Like a younger sibling who was doing it only for attention.
“I’m not a pyro,” she told him. “I promise. Call it superstition. If you give that message to just anyone, it may steal some of its truth.”
“‘Steal its truth?’” Tanner repeated, dubiously.
“Yes,” she answered.
So much for forthrightness. Tanner supposed since she was not privy to his private thoughts she could hardly know that he was looking for a bit of clarity. Still, it was galling. Ultimately Tanner had to make a decision. Was she quirky or crazy? The problem was that the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
“All right,” he said.
“All right I can see you again?” she asked.
“Yes,” Tanner said, taking her hand off of his arm. “But the next time you have to promise me at least one straight answer.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “I can give you one straight answer now if you like, kind of a down payment on my honesty.”
“And what straight answer is that?”
“I was looking for you last night at the bar.”
“I only promised you one straight answer,” she said with a laugh and walked away. Tanner followed her with his eyes until she was just a color and shape in the distance. Maybe he should have asked for more straight answers than just one. Well, Tanner was disinclined to spend much time wallowing in regret. And he had made a decision.
There was a park not far from Paulie’s bar and Tanner’s apartment. It was a small park and in the early afternoon there were very few people in it. Tanner knew it wasn’t much of a park, really just a square block of lawn dissected along the diagonals by sidewalks. There were a couple of benches and a few oak trees, which had been planted when the park had been founded some twenty years ago. If the park had a name no one had ever bothered to tell Tanner or— more to the point—put up a sign.
Where the two diagonals met in the middle of the park there was a circular walkway surrounding an enormous evergreen ash tree that, unlike the oaks, predated the park. Underneath the evergreen ash tree was a bench. That was where Tanner decided to go and sit for a while.
The token nod to ornamentation in the park was a series of small stone sculptures of the solar system which was unusual in that instead of revolving around the sun, the planets lined up in an arc around the edge of the sidewalk facing inwards towards it. The artist had given each of the planets a face and an expression. To Tanner it looked as if the sun was a borderline burn-out high school history teacher, desperately trying to get the planets to behave. The planets each had a face, really a caricature of an emotion: Sadness, Happiness, Anger. Pluto looked mischievous. The only exception to this was Earth, which had no expression at all, only two eyes staring out in opposite directions, appearing incredibly unfocused, distracted. Tanner had never liked the sculpture very much.
He found himself looking at it now. Not Earth, which had taken up most of his interest before, but at Mars. Mars was wrong, Tanner realized. Mars was the God of War. He should be Anger, but he wasn’t. Mars was fear, shock. The eyes were very wide as if they were staring at something too horrible to consider. They were not looking inwardly at the sun, but instead at Earth. Tanner found that strange.
He supposed it didn’t really mean anything, that it had just been a strange fancy of the sculptor. But he was there and the sculpture was all there was to ponder and it was better than thinking about things closer to home. But trying to avoid thinking about a thing always made it certain that you could think of nothing else. The solution of course, was not to think at all, to let your mind wander aimlessly, like a child running in a field full of dandelions. Tanner had never been good at that. What he was good at was making connections of dissolute parts, untangling webs and putting things into order. But every time he tried to apply order to the CEO, the printer kiosk, Reggie and the piece of paper she set afire Tanner could come up with nothing. It was frustrating to him. It made him want to kick Earth in its stone face—set the eyes right, get it to focus. Perhaps all it needed was a swift kick in the head. Tanner had heard it said that type of thing could work. He was tempted to try it, just once. But instead he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep
It had been a long time since Tanner had dreamt this dream. The one where he died. It was always the same. It was always strange.
It was a beautiful sunny day and the castle was even more dazzling than normal. The bold blue banners hanging from the tower fluttered in a gentle breeze and there was the sound of blaring trumpets. The sky was an impossible blue. From everywhere Tanner heard laughter and merriment. And from somewhere inside himself there was a great swelling of pride. For, after all, wasn’t this all for him?
As he did each time he had this dream, he paused over the moat, looked down upon his watery reflection. He was a medieval knight, dressed in full plate armor. It wasn’t his face that he saw in the rippling water; it wasn’t Tanner. But he felt that the reflection told the true story, that he was a visitor in someone else’s moment.
But he moved forward into the courtyard, where everyone awaited him. There were scores of men in armor like him, cheering him like a brother and scores more ladies in bright colors who looked on in unguarded admiration. In the middle of the courtyard stood a King and Queen without faces and they held out to him a cup of wine. Tanner approached and drank from it; the wine was red and sweet and went straight to his head. The world started spinning and everything was music, noise and colors.
When the spinning stopped there was a woman. He knew more than saw how beautiful she was. Every time he tried to steal a glance at her face he found his gaze slid away to the side. So he knew rather than saw that he handed her the cup and that she drank from it. He knew rather than saw the blood rush to her face and the smile on her warm lips.
It was a great celebration and the festivities carried into the evening. At dusk Tanner found himself over the moat again, staring up at the woman. She was leaning from a tower window; she was throwing down her favor. Tanner was bold and young and strong and true of soul, and all he wanted at that moment was to catch the young lady’s favor.
He saw it clearly, saw it floating down like gossamer on the wind. Everything was beautiful, everything was right. He leaned over to catch it, felt it brush his fingers as he fell over the side of the bridge and into the water. Typically the moat was left empty in times of peace, but it was filled for the celebration, just as all the knights were in full dress armor for the celebration. And so it didn’t take long for it to occur to Tanner that steel and water don’t mix and that though the moat wasn’t very deep, he would almost certainly drown under the burden of his own armor. He felt a great sadness, but he also felt something settle in his hand as he neared the water, knew that though his end was near, the favor was in his hand.
And all the rest was the weight of water and the blue-green color of the grave.
When he awoke it was dusk and growing dark. Tanner sighed and stood up. He walked over to the Earth sculpture, brushed the soil away from its base. He found a sharp piece of rock in the dirt and before he knew what he was doing he was scratching a message into the base of the sculpture.
It read, Ex calce liberatus and somehow, even though Tanner didn’t know a word of Latin and hadn’t the faintest idea what the words meant, he felt he had arrived at an essential truth. He walked to his apartment strangely pleased with himself.
That he was still pleased with himself as he put the key to the lock was unusual, but gratifying. He opened the door and stepped into the darkness. Tanner liked to keep his apartment dark. He didn’t have much furniture so he didn’t have to worry about walking into anything. Next to the door there was a phone and an answering machine that indicated he had two messages.
“Odin,” he called out, wanting to make sure that he didn’t step on his cat in the darkness. Odin was possibly the ugliest cat in the history of ugly cats. He was a white Cornish Rex, which Tanner figured was Latin for ugly cat. Odin was ugly even before he lost an eye in his one glorious week of freedom. Tanner didn’t know what had happened during that week and Odin wasn’t telling, but it had cost Odin his left eye. Tanner had taken him to the vet and had the eyelid sewn shut. But sometimes there was a strange spasm that overcame Odin and it looked like he was winking. Tanner had been told it was disconcerting by more than one party. One young woman had said that it looked like a heartbeat. She had said that less than five minutes before she left Tanner’s apartment, never to return.
When Tanner was relatively certain that Odin had snuck out of the apartment and into another down the hall he walked inside and closed the door. He hit the playback button on the answering machine. The first message was from his mother and it was brief.
“Tanner, it’s your mother,” her voice rang out with the faux enthusiasm of someone unsure how to talk to a machine and deciding to make up for its lack of humanity with an excess of their own, “I just wanted to call and say, ‘hi.’ Call me when you get the chance, won’t you?”
Tanner had to smile. Perhaps a phone call from his mother was just what he needed to be dragged down to reality, though he hesitated to so slur reality. His mother always seemed to try to build his self-confidence—why she thought he needed such a boost, Tanner had no idea—by reminding him that he was a direct descendent of Rob Roy. As she liked to say, ‘He was in that movie! Liam Neeson played him!’ Never mind that if Tanner descended from Rob Roy—an uncertain supposition considering Rob Roy’s last name was MacGregor—he did so on his father’s side and that the last time his parents had spoken to one another was during the Reagan administration. Tanner’s mother would hear none of that. No, Tanner decided that calling his mother was not what he needed.
Meanwhile the answering machine advanced. The second message was from Bob Digby.
“Tanner, this is Bob Digby?” Bob spoke in a stage whisper. “I’ve been promoted? I’m at Crickets? Come? Please?”
Bob. Short, to the point, everything phrased as a question. The man was clearly upset. Tanner wasn’t certain he wanted to go to Crickets, but he didn’t feel it was fair to Bob to leave him alone in this state. Besides, it would be good to get an idea of how the rest of the day went at the company.
So Tanner’s stay in his apartment was a short one. He locked the door behind him and walked down the hallway. A door opened and out of it came Ms. Bond, a sweet septuagenarian who invited her neighbors in for tea that was one part tea, ten parts sugar. She was also Odin’s favorite neighbor and not just because Tanner’s cat was strangely drawn to Ms. Bond’s pinker than pink bathrobe. Tanner suspected she kept a secret garden of catnip, which would be the mother-load for Odin. For Tanner’s part he thought the squinty way she had of looking at him made her look like some sort of bird of prey. He had long harbored a suspicion that there was steel beneath that pink frock. He imagined she ruled over her plants with an iron fist.
“Hi Ms. Bond,” Tanner said. “Is Odin in there?”
“Yes, dear,” the old lady smiled. “Isn’t he a clever one? I could have sworn my window was closed and locked and yet there he was inside my washing machine.”
Sometimes Tanner wasn’t sure if Odin was his cat or Ms. Bond’s cat. Certainly Odin didn’t seem to draw much of a distinction. He claimed possession over both Tanner and Ms. Bond.
“Whites or colors?” Tanner asked.
“It was empty dear,” the old lady smiled. “Do you want to collect him?”
“Maybe later,” Tanner replied. “I have to meet a friend. Is it okay if he spends the night?”
“Any time dear,” Ms. Bond said as she closed the door. “Good night, dear.”
“Good night,” Tanner replied.
She left the door open a crack, peered out at Tanner brazenly. Tanner returned the stare for just a split second then looked away. He was amused. She had certainly lived long enough to have earned the right to spy on her neighbors. Besides, Tanner’s life was an open book.
Bob had found himself the darkest corner of Crickets, which was still many times brighter than the brightest place at Paulie’s. Bob’s drink had a pink umbrella in it, but Bob wasn’t drinking; he was staring.
“There’s no happiness at the bottom of that glass,” Tanner quipped as he slid across the table from Bob. “How’d the birthday invitation copying go?”
“Oh, hi Tanner,” Bob said, tearing his stare from his drink. He dug down into his pants pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to Tanner. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” Tanner said, straightening out the paper to verify that he was invited to Bob’s birthday bash on Saturday at . . . “Charlie Cheddar’s Fun Imporium?”
Bob nodded and shifted in his chair, “The roller skating rink was booked. I should have called earlier.”
And this was the man the company was moving into Tanner’s position? What were they thinking? The single most vital aspect of the job was socializing with similarly positioned employees of rival companies. This man had a difficult time socializing with furniture. But Tanner knew that Bob was in great need of confidence building, so he kept those thoughts to himself.
“Too bad,” Tanner said about the roller skating rink. “Maybe next year.”
“Already booked it,” Bob chanced a smile and then a sip from his drink. “I don’t think this drink has any alcohol in it.”
Tanner gave it a glance. It looked like a Shirley Temple.
“Did you order a Shirley Temple?”
Bob shook his head, moved his fingers along the side of the glass, wetting them with the condensation. Tanner thought Bob had a better chance getting drunk off the condensation than his drink.
“Chazz and Harry did,” Bob admitted. “They said it was the perfect drink for me. I think they were having fun at my expense.”
He looked questioningly at Tanner who nodded his head. Bob took out the straw and set it neatly along the fold in the bar napkin. He then took the glass and tried to chug the rest, only most of it ended up on his shirt. Bob looked down at his shirt, saw the stain and started to tear up.
“What am I doing here, Tanner?” Bob asked. “Is this some kind of joke? Are they punishing me for breaking the copiers? Going to Kinko’s? What?”
“I don’t know,” Tanner admitted.
Bob took this with more than a hint of despair. He wore this despair like the rich wore designer clothing, as if it was tailored specifically to him. Tanner could tell that Bob had been counting on Tanner to explain this to him. He had been the last resort for Bob and now Bob had nothing. He had less than nothing. Well he had something: he had a huge stain on his shirt.
Bob was the last of a long line of simple men. His father had been a simple man, a good man. He had been a painter, but not the kind who has landscapes or portraits hanging in austere galleries where people wear interestingly shaped spectacles, but a house painter, mostly exteriors.
Bob’s father loved painting, loved working in the open air, loved his son. He liked taking “little Bobby” with him to work, watching the boy cover himself with paint. And Bob had enjoyed going to work with his father even more than his father had enjoyed having him there. Those memories were the fondest he possessed.
Bob still couldn’t help feeling that they had filled him with a false sense of expectation about the goodness of the world. His father had believed in the goodness of his fellow man, even if some kept their essential goodness buried a little bit deeper than others. His father hadn’t been a religious man, couldn’t get his mind around the idea that getting a prize after you die was a good enough reason for being nice to other people, but he had almost a religious fervor about the concept of goodness. He had instilled that sensibility in Bob, for all the good it had done him.
Maybe it had been different for his father, Bob considered. Maybe people were simply crueler now than they were then; perhaps it wasn’t even their fault. Perhaps the instinct for cruelty helped them survive in an increasingly pitiless world. Perhaps the instinct to play practical jokes, hurtful jokes, at the expense of others, to mock those who were not like you, was only a pale reflection of a much larger issue. Bob didn’t know, didn’t want to think about it. All he knew was that he was in a bar with a drink that represented his inability to cope with the world around him. And that he missed his father.
Bob looked over at the bar. Chazz and Harry were still over there. Their goodness was very well buried. Perhaps it was dead. Bob wished he could withdraw the invitations he had given them to his birthday party. He wondered if Tanner would do it for him.
Tanner didn’t know what to say to Bob. Tanner believed Bob was singularly unqualified to do the job to which he had been assigned. That led him to believe that whomever had selected him for the position wanted him to fail in a spectacular fashion. The company may not operate within the normal bounds of corporate behavior, but it was successful and it didn’t become successful without having a plan. Tanner simply wasn’t privy to all the information.
“So you headed back to work after Kinko’s?” he asked Bob.
Bob nodded. “Becky Miller was yelling at Gene, calling him all sorts of nasty names. But Gene was just standing there taking it, nodding as if he agreed with every word. They ended up taking out the sledgehammer.”
“They destroyed the equipment?”
“No,” Bob said and shook his head as if clearing out cobwebs. “They just threatened the printer with it. Some guy from Accounts Receivable, a big guy, I think his name was Bill, anyway, he grabbed the sledgehammer and slung it over his shoulder and told the machines what he was going to do. He gave a lot of details. How many times he was going to hit the machine. How much he was going to enjoy it. How loud other people would cheer after he was finished. How few tears would be shed in memory of the lost equipment. I was scared. And then it stopped. It just stopped. Then Bill put down the sledgehammer and went back to work and everything went back to normal. Except then Gene came to me and told me I was going to do your job. And that I had to go to Crickets tonight and meet Chazz and Harry and what great guys they are. Do you think I can have my old job back?”
Tanner wished it was that easy. He ordered Bob a shot of tequila. And then another. And then another. And then he called Bob a taxi. Tanner figured that when Bob came into work in the morning, his huge hangover would make it appear that he at least knew what he was supposed to be doing, even if he was not likely to do it well.
Tanner didn’t stay much longer after he sent Bob home. There was no one at Crickets that he really wanted to talk to. There was a backdoor that led out to the alley behind the bar and it was through this door that Tanner quietly slipped out into the night.
As usual the alley was empty and had the stale scent of refuse that had been sitting out for days in a pool of urine. It was not an appealing odor and probably had much to do with why the alley was always deserted. There was a chill in the air and Tanner hadn’t brought a jacket. It was times like this, alone, cold and in the dark that Tanner almost wished that he had taken up smoking. He was so consumed by the sudden chill that he almost didn’t notice that he wasn’t alone in the darkness.
Two men were standing in the shadows of the alley. There was no direct light in the alley, only the reflected light from other streets which produced a great number of canopies of shadow down its length. Tanner and the two men were each under such a canopy and there was no way Tanner could see them or they him. The two talked to one another in hushed voices, seemingly from the same shadow no more than fifteen feet from Tanner.
“What do you think?” one asked the other, his voice sonorous, like someone Tanner would expect to hear on the radio.
“Hard to say,” the other said, his voice raspy and raw. “I saw two of them in there, but neither of them seemed right.”
“Did you get a chance to grab them?”
“No,” the raspy-voiced man answered. “One of them left in the taxi. The other’s still inside. I can try to grab him if you want.”
Tanner stepped back against the wall. There was room for doubt of course. He doubted that Bob was the only person to have left Crickets in a taxi, knew for a fact that other people beside himself had been inside, but since he couldn’t eliminate himself as a possibility he chose to be cautious.
“No,” the smooth voice replied. “No need to be hasty. We’ve identified them. Let’s wait for the background checks before we do anything rash.”
The two men then seemed to have heard a noise and went silent. Tanner tried to blend into the wall, become the wall. He also was not keen on hasty action. Although he couldn’t see them, Tanner could have sworn that the men were looking straight at him, but they didn’t appear to notice him.
“Tomorrow then?” the raspy voiced man asked after a pause.
“Yes,” the other man replied and the two men walked away.
After he was quite certain they were gone Tanner moved away from the wall. He wondered what the men had been looking for, what had made them conclude that Bob and he hadn’t seemed to fit the profile. He would have to bring it to the CEO’s attention. The two men had likely worked for ESBI Corp. and it looked like it was a very real possibility that Tanner was on the list of potential kidnappings. He shook his head. He would have to sleep on it.
As Tanner made his way home via taxi an upsetting thought occurred to him, that this day was not an isolated incident, but might become the norm for him. He could only hope that he was mistaken. He walked into his apartment, heard Odin’s distinctive mew of welcome and turned on the lights so he wouldn’t step on him. Odin was staring inquisitively at him as if trying to notice something different about him.
“What?” Tanner asked the cat.
Odin mewed and ran into the bedroom. Tanner was tempted to follow directly, but saw that he had received another message on his machine. Tanner suspected it was Bob, hit the play button.
“Tanner,” came not the voice of Bob, but of the CEO. “I hope you’ve used your afternoon off productively. I forgot to tell you something earlier today. Bring your cat in to work with you tomorrow. Also, if at all possible, try to get in before seven. I’d like to keep the number of people who see you come in and out of the express elevator to a minimum. Also, try to limit the physical contact you make with other people from now on; I’ll explain why later.”
A pause followed and Tanner almost convinced himself the message was complete, but he knew there was supposed to be a beep to indicate the end. He wondered what the CEO had been thinking, what caused him to hesitate before saying:
“And don’t worry about those two guys outside of Crickets. Even if they had grabbed you they wouldn’t have done anything. It’s too soon. Anyway, good night. See you tomorrow. Looking forward to working with you.”
And then followed the beep. Tanner would definitely have to sleep on this. He went to bed hoping he would not have the dream where he drowned again, but wasn’t very optimistic.