"Drew Dunkel here," he said melodiously.
"Oh Drew, it's John," said Telerude, sounding even more consternated than usual.
So, thought Drew; his story had ruffled some feathers after all.
By the time Drew reached Telerude's office it was 6:49. The city editor was sprawled gingerly upon one of the chairs in front of the desk, as if he had been dropped there from a great height and was afraid to move his broken bones. This, Drew knew, was his "casual," let's-have-a-chat posture. Drew took a seat, but very incompletely, hoping to convey the impermanence of his presence.
Telerude as usual was immune to such hints, and opened with a (for him) rather abbreviated version of his standard set-piece about the ways in which publishing a daily newspaper had changed since he had first started in the business. Drew had learned over eight years that the best, that is quickest, way to get through this spiel was to say nothing—to become, indeed, totally catatonic. By 7:00 on the wall-clock (which Drew knew was precisely 6:55 in real-time: Telerude believed this little sleight made him five minutes more efficient than anyone else in the office), John closed his introduction with the head-shakings and hums of a man who has acted well in an emergency, and Drew felt it safe to make eye-contact. This prompted a few epigrams on the Changeableness of Man, and then Telerude said something almost ad hominem—and it was only 6:56. Record time, really.
"Drew, we're going to shake up your working conditions a little bit."
"In what way?" asked Drew, and braced himself for a fresh torrent of generalities.
Telerude changed his posture, without any apparent increase in comfort or naturalness. "Before we get into that, Drew, I thought maybe I should shoot a few questions in your direction."
John opened his mouth, but did not manage to speak before a tremor of hesitation, followed by a tremor of reconsideration, followed by a spasm of renewed purpose, had crossed his face. "Is everything okay, Drew?"
On another day, he might have said, "What the fuck are you talking about, John?" It was impossible to offend Telerude: he took every insult and outburst as badinage. Consequently, cursing him out was a popular stress-release among his staff. But today Drew did not feel like cursing anyone out. He felt, on the contrary, like inviting John along to the pub to meet Miranda. No one at the Post-Times even knew he had a daughter. He had a secret, and it made him feel remote and benevolent.
He thought of her excellent posture, and of her subtle sense of humor. The sight of her pulling up outside the restaurant on a bicycle, holding an umbrella. He thought of her face, and of the big hoop earrings that she wore and which contrasted with the rest of her dowdy, even tomboyish outfit, and his heart began to race. The sensation was both pleasant and unpleasant.
"Never been better," he said, and his habitual sarcasm was unable to hide his sincerity.
"Well, that's good to hear," John said with a bemused smile. "I have noticed, I mean several people have noticed, not just me, but me too, we have noticed a, yes, I think it's fair to say a change in you recently."
"The only thing that's certain in life, John, is change."
"Yes," said Telerude mournfully, as if Drew had not borrowed one of his favorite epigrams but murdered it. "But not all change is for the best, Drew." John looked at him beseechingly, like a man willing his senile father to recognize and embrace him.
"What's on your mind, John?"
"I have to confess that some of us, for a while there, we thought perhaps that, well, something had happened. You seemed a little ... out of sorts, to be honest. A little, maybe, under the weather."
"Huh," said Drew. "Well."
"This is difficult for me to say," said Telerude, illustrating this statement by knitting his brows and contorting his mouth. "I don't especially relish ... I thought Margo in HR should be the one ... Not that I don't always say that my reporters are my ... I guess there's no good way but to come right out and ... It's your appearance," he spluttered at last.
Telerude looked so severely pained by this time that Drew's first impulse was to laugh. "My appearance?"
"Of course you have always been a bit of a nonconformist where what shall we call it, fashion is concerned, but ..."
Drew felt the first prickle of hurt. He knew that he could be an indifferent, even slovenly dresser. Most of the time his clothing was something he was simply unaware of, something he had no capacity to perceive, like ultrasonic sounds or infrared light. The rest of the time he could usually make a virtue of his weakness, imagining it the quirk of a flamboyant and uncompromising personality. That is, he told himself that he didn't give a shit how he looked, and most of the time he believed it. And finding clothes to fit his massive body, with all its idiosyncratic bulges, was difficult, tedious, and embarrassing: dressing rooms were not designed for men of his dimensions. When he had to buy clothes, he bought them in bulk, like a bulimic on a binge, carrying home, from some thrift shop or sidewalk clearance bin, garbage bags full of flag-sized shirts and tablecloth-sized pants, which he would stuff by the bale into the washing machine. Only then would he submit to the demeaning rigmarole of actually trying the things on and looking at himself, or parts of himself, in the mirror. Most of the items were unwearable, even by his standards, and went right back out the door in another garbage bag and into the donation bin of a different thrift store. Whatever did fit was inevitably ugly, but he wore it till it began to disintegrate. Then he went shopping again.
"We thought, frankly, that maybe you'd had some kind of disappointment, received some bad news ...?" He looked at Drew hopefully.
"Nothing like that," said Drew. "In fact ..." Should he tell Telerude about Miranda? "In fact, quite the contrary."
Telerude studied his face.
"Really," Drew said. "I'm fine, John."
Telerude continued to study his face.
For a moment, Drew felt that something alien was watching him out of John's eyes.
"Fuck out of it with that shit, John."
The spell broke. Telerude laughed, slapping his thighs and shaking his head and wiping his cheeks with the backs of his hands.
"Still the old Drew, I see. Still the same old sense of humor. Well, that's a relief, I must say." He cracked his knuckles and sat up straight, still chuckling.
Drew looked at the clock and cleared his throat meaningfully, but the meaning was lost on Telerude. "Was there anything else, John?"
"Nothing that can't wait," said Telerude, getting to his feet and fluttering his hands in a gesture of paternal benediction. "You go on with yourself. We'll talk tomorrow."
Drew levered himself into a standing position.
"It's only about moving Miss Moon over to lifestyle."
What? They were taking Moonie from him? They were moving her to lifestyle? Whose idea was this? Hers? John's? Petch's? Who would do the police newsers? Who would transcribe his interviews? Drew looked at the clock: 7:05.
All he said was, "Oh?"
Telerude grinned. "I told Luke you'd have no objections. Well, have fun—wherever it is you're off to. Have fun. Have a drink for me. Heh heh. Sometimes I wish I were still young. Ah well. Every hour wounds and the last one kills. First you get old and then you die. Heh heh. Ah well. Goodnight, Drew."