It was a beautiful night. The cool damp air smelled both rich and clean, as if the city had been fumigated then perfumed. The streetlights and the glowing signs and windows of the bars along the strip were softly smeared by mist, and when he squinted they looked like bright sea-creatures reaching out trembling tentacles of light. Cabs trawled the street without impatience; Drew lifted his gaze above them to signify his self-sufficiency and contentment.
It was hardly raining at all—maybe one millimeter per hour—but people still pressed up against the buildings as if it were hailing. Drew, with a satisfying sense of nonconformity, stood out on the curb and let the drizzle anoint his head while he smoked. The drops that fell on his bare hands were like infinitesimal icicles, administered by some cosmic acupuncturist to reharmonize the energy fields of his brain and body. He felt the nicotine, too, entering his bloodstream and coursing into every filament-thin capillary, ratcheting up his nervous system to a higher level of functioning.
She would be here soon.
He decided that Moonie didn't matter. He didn't need an assistant. If he was disgruntled, it was for her sake. She would be miserable working under that weasel Petch, hacking up feed celebrity gossip. But then he remembered her devotion to Harley Findley, and the glossy magazines that littered her desk. Perhaps the move had been her idea after all. She must have brought it up with Telerude, or Petch, or both—and yet tonight was the first he'd heard of it. Why hadn't she come to him first?
Maybe she had. Maybe she'd mentioned the possibility in an offhand, theoretical way, and taken his grunt of acknowledgement as a blessing. Sheila had been especially fond of that tactic—not that she would have called it a tactic. No doubt in her idiolect the question "Should we have pasta tonight?" when uttered with just the right intonation, really did mean "Will you make pasta tonight?" And perhaps Drew's reply—"Indescribable, dear," or "Doesn't matter to me," or "Okay"—when uttered with any intonation whatsoever, really did translate to "Yes, I hereby promise that I will make pasta tonight; now not another word on the matter, put it right out of your mind, consider it done, my word is my bond."
But to be fair (to Moonie), lately he didn't always remember every detail of every conversation. Lately, sometimes, he got lost in his thoughts.
Maybe it had something to do with the insomnia. Maybe his trances were daydreams, literally. If the brain needed a certain amount of REM sleep every day, and his brain wasn't getting enough at night, maybe it had to scrounge some during the day.
Whatever their cause, the trances weren't much of a problem. Most of his day-to-day activities could be carried out on autopilot, like driving his car. He did not remember driving here, though he remembered where he had parked. Perhaps his mind was even operating more efficiently. He could ponder other, more important matters while his spinal column took care of the menial task at hand. Soon he'd be drafting his stories in the grocery store while his body mindlessly shopped. Or thinking of Miranda while his unconscious mindlessly drafted his stories.
A cool breeze swept down the street and wafted under his slicker, sending a wave of gooseflesh across his skin. He could feel each individual hair as it bristled, and for a moment his body felt covered by a dense quilt of insect's feelers. Then, like the queasy rush of histamines that follows being burned, came a wave of nostalgia. The cool breeze reminded him of childhood. The cool breeze was childhood.
Late afternoons rambling home from school with a jacket and banana peel in his backpack; catching frogs at dusk in the marsh; cruising downhill on his bicycle, the wind making his eyes sting. The breeze that cooled him at the end of a sticky summer day, encouraging him to play outside till long after his mother had given up hollering at him to come in, supper was getting cold.
His thick, haylike mop of hair kept most of the water off his scalp, but soon the rain was trickling down the back of his neck. When it began to collect on his glasses he flicked his cigar into the gutter and went inside. He hated water on his glasses.
The pub was beginning to get crowded. He found a table with two adequate chairs and draped his jacket over one and his sweater over the other. Then he settled in.
It had been shortly after 7:30 when he'd arrived. He resisted checking the time again.
He looked at the time. It was 7:47. She would be here soon.
At a nearby table a young smart couple sat with their foreheads nearly touching. The girl was dark-eyed, her skin as smooth as lacquered rosewood. He had seen her someplace before.
He wondered what Miranda's friends were like. Did she talk about him to them? Did she tell them of the times when, working on a story, her dad had taken her to see things that no one else's dad took them to see—the control room of a power plant, the training simulator at the Coast Guard base, the broadcast room at Fentley Stadium, a weather research station, City Hall ... Even when I was a kid, he was more like my brother than my dad. It was always him and me against Sheila. She scolded him as often as she scolded me. Like that time we buried her meatless meatloaf in the azalea pot. Or the time we left a hot shower running and pretended the apartment was a jungle. The time we drank Coke and burped our favorite burping words. Mine was "burlap," yours was "oligarchy." I still say "burlap" when I burp.
He wondered what she remembered. They hadn't reminisced much, that day at the restaurant, or in the letters and phone calls that preceded it.
He still had the letters at home, tucked between the pages of Thucydides. He had only read each of them once before replying, perhaps as a means of containing them, of minimizing their sting.
The first had come to the office, several weeks ago now, and because there was no return address or sender information on the envelope it was opened as a matter of course by Moonie. How much had she read before realizing that it was personal? In any case, she said nothing when she handed the letter to him with the rest of the "nutbat" stack—so named for the high proportion of disgruntled schizoids and disaffected conspiracy theorists who still wrote to the living half of Dunkel and Hearnes, begging him to expose whatever nefarious plot or skullduggery they happened to believe in.
Nothing, at first, distinguished her letter from those of the nutbats: it had been typed, it contained few paragraph breaks, and it started out on the same note of tortuous apology that characterized the others' supplications.
You will probably think it is rather cheeky of me to write you like this out of the blue. I have often thought of writing you (I mean lately) but for all my thinking about it I still haven't come up with exactly what it is I wanted to say. I finally had to just sit down and force myself to do it. Well, even that didn't work: I kept getting hung up on the words themselves. This is the third draft already and this time I've decided to just keep going, just keep moving, otherwise I'll never get anywhere. I hope that even as a writer you'll forgive spelling mistakes and all other flubs, and keep in mind that if I'm not making much sense it's probably because I'm only thinking it through as I put it down on paper. Well that should be just about enough disclaimers for any number of letters.
It was at this point that he had flipped to the last page and discovered who his correspondent was.
He had turned away from his desk, the sheets held loosely in his hand, and stared blindly out the window, keeping his mind intentionally blank for a minute or two. Then he had gone upstairs to the men's washroom and locked himself in the uniquely-abled stall and quickly read the rest.
A waitress came by, carrying an empty tray high above her head—rather like the lion in the fable he'd used to read to Miranda, clutching the empty chest long after the fox and the other animals had run off with the loot. The waitress took the young couple's order, nodding her head rapidly in order to show that she was indeed committing it to memory, or perhaps really in order to commit it to memory. On her way back to the bar she caught sight of Drew and her demeanor changed abruptly; she went from looking serious and capable to looking weary and pitying. After puffing herself up with resolve and false cheer, she came over to Drew's table and asked, with breezy simulated naturalness, if there was any little old thing she could get for him.
"You know I think I'll wait till my friend arrives actually," he said. But on second thought he didn't want to look, when Miranda did arrive, like he was just sitting around waiting, watching the clock. So, after detaining the waitress with an almost Telerudian speech on the changeability of the human mind, he ordered a whiskey sour. Just as soon as she was good and truly gone he wished that he had made it a coffee. He felt that what he could really use was a shot of caffeine—with another shot of nicotine as a chaser. He was feeling hot and cotton-headed. It was fuggy in here. Too many people. He was still wearing his sport coat. He stood to remove it. Just as he was wriggling out of it the woman at the nearby table glanced over at him briefly, but without a pause in what she was saying to her companion—as if she had been discussing him, and had only flicked her eyes in his direction to demonstrate or underscore some point.
Well, perhaps she recognized him. Sometimes people did.
The music, which Drew till then had been successfully ignoring, suddenly got much louder, and, quite apart from that, much worse. He would have turned his earbugs off but then he would not hear his PDR ring if Miranda happened to call.
He did not believe that anything really worthwhile had been done in, or with, or to music since about 1975—since, say, the last good album from Roxy Music was put out, ten years before his own birth. He realized (he imagined himself pontificating like this to Miranda) that such an attitude might be considered old-fashioned, but the noise that now assaulted him only strengthened his conviction. It sounded exactly like a cat, or several cats, being bludgeoned to death inside a smeltery by blind children with brass instruments.
What kind of music did Miranda like? What did she think of Roxy Music? He had played those albums over and over for her when she was a kid, but had the lesson stuck? How lucky she had been to have a father with such good taste! He recalled with faint resentment how he had had to discover everything by himself. His father had believed that music was a waste of time.
Well, this was something else they could talk about, when she arrived. He should almost have been making a list. To help him remember, he made a mental note, literally: he pictured a musical note and stowed it away inside his things-to-remember box, which he pictured as made of wicker, like a picnic basket.
Because of the music, the formerly low hubbub of conversation now swelled to a hysterical pitch, till everyone in the place was shouting to be heard. As if in spite, management dimmed the lights.
Drew drank his whiskey sour, which had appeared without his noticing, and gave himself over to mellow contemplation of what time it might be. It might be 7:55, he thought. It might be 8:00. It could just conceivably be after 8:00. But not by much. She'd be here soon.
He looked at his watch. It was 8:06.
He decided to take a look around for her. He did not think it likely that she had come in and sat down somewhere without seeing him or being seen by him. But just in case ...
To conceal his intent, he went first to the washroom. There was no oversized UA stall, so Drew was left with no choice but to piss at one of the urinals. In one of the stalls someone was urinating powerfully into the toilet bowl while groaning and, by the sound of it, thumping his head rhythmically against the metal partition. Drew positioned himself before the farthest urinal.
He unzipped and freed himself from the unseen labyrinth of his underwear, then, to relax, read some of the tiny, meticulous graffiti which was written in the grout between tiles, where the management presumably could not remove it.
T.F.T. hearted Lenore. Someone else, however, was of the cynical opinion that T.F.T. merely wanted to fuck her. A third party (or perhaps T.F.T. himself?) thought the second was merely jealous. A fourth claimed that the cynic (or perhaps the third party?) was a homosexual. A fifth said they were all gay. The President was (also?) gay. And the author of this opinion was in turn accused of being the gay one.
In other news ... Women were less intelligent than men, the Chinese were controlling the weather, the neo-fascists were controlling the economy, the government was controlling your mind, the local baseball team was incompetent (differing opinions on that one), and chemtrails were slowly poisoning you. That one made Drew chuckle. It had been a pet conspiracy theory of the schizoids for at least twenty years that jets were spewing chemicals into the atmosphere for various reasons: to test new pharmaceuticals on unwitting populations, to genetically modify organic crops, to combat (or to expedite) global warming. The proof cited by the nutbat contingent years ago was in the vapor trails, which, they said, lingered unnaturally in the sky. Drew still remembered being accosted by one homeless schizo who had urged him to watch the skies and see for himself that these chemtrails did not disperse, that you never saw clear blue skies unmarred by these criss-crossing bright white lines anymore. Drew had given him two bucks and assured him gently that he would keep an eye out. And he had not been—or not just been—placating the guy. He had watched the skies, for a week or so; the idea amused him; he was sure, too, that Mike would get a kick out of it. But he'd been quickly disappointed: there were still (in those days) many clear blue days, and as far as he could tell jets' vapor trails dispersed as slowly but surely as they ever had. And when he'd told Mike about it at poker, Mike had looked hurt and said that, as a matter of fact, he'd already written a book about it. (Later Drew rather sheepishly poked around in Mike's library and found that it was called Terror Trails. The book's premise, if the gaudy cover art could be trusted, was that chemtrails were turning people into raging, slavering gorillas. Which was why Drew didn't read science fiction.) You had to laugh at any crackpot who still believed such nonsense today, years after the last jet, or anything else, had been seen in the sky—in the sky above the U.S., anyway.
The guy in the stall was talking to him. At least Drew assumed it was him; there was no one else around.
"Pardon me?" said Drew with sarcastic politeness to indicate the breach of washroom etiquette.
The guy muttered something that Drew could not at first decipher, and in any case was probably not meant to hear. He let the syllables percolate in his brain and came up with what might have been "She wants you to mind your own business."
Alright. Unflustered, he returned his attention to the wall. suck my cock. the future is growing on me. t'reason. morphogenetic fields are real. iiium. gay zionism: sodom for the sodomites. suck my cock again. What was with these guys? Most of the time this invitation was obviously intended in a malicious, not a lascivious spirit, but in some cases a time and date was provided in order to facilitate the fellatio. Strange that what was for one man a sweet nothing was for another a term of abuse. If having you suck their cock was the worst debasement some guys could imagine inflicting on another, it made you wonder what was wrong with their cocks. And were these the same guys who so loved to draw cocks, usually squirting semen, all over this and every other wall in every washroom Drew had ever been in? It made you wonder what women drew on the walls of their washrooms, whether they invited one another to suck their vulva. Something else to bring up with Miranda. He opened his things-to-remember box, took out the music note, tattooed it onto the side of a cock, and stowed that away for safe-keeping. Then, just as he was putting himself away and zipping back up, he read:
she's not coming
While he was washing his hands the man in the stall emerged, and Drew felt a shock perhaps not unlike that felt by a parishioner on seeing his priest emerge from the confessional dressed in street clothes. This man, who was small and thin and neat and apparently sober and cheerful, did not at all match Drew's mental image.
The man caught his eye in the mirror and grinned—a little shyly, perhaps, but shamelessly, innocently.
Drew smiled back and said, "Feels good, eh?"
"Hm? What's that?"
His voice was high and plummy, not at all gruff like a few moments ago.
"Getting that off your chest," Drew said, flicking his eyes in the direction of the stall.
The man shook his head with polite bewilderment tempered by polite incuriosity.
"Nothing like a good piss, I mean."
"Ah," said the man. "Ah yes."
"Nothing like it," said Drew.
"No indeed. No sirree."
Well, the guy could really pull himself together when he had to. An inveterate drunk, Drew supposed.
Shuffling sideways with the grace of a ballroom dancer, Drew began to wave his wet hands back and forth in front of the hand dryer. The thing did not start so he tried the next one, putting a little more purpose and panache into his gesture. Still the thing did not start.
"It might be your shirt," said the man.
It was Drew's turn to be nonplussed.
The man pointed to a little engraved plate that had been set into the wall beneath the dryer.
motion detector may not work
with dark clothes
To demonstrate, the man stood in front of the first dryer. It screamed immediately to life. He shrugged and twitched his shirt, which was indeed white.
"I'll be fucked."
"Technology," said the man dolefully.
"Technology," Drew agreed.
The man got the other dryer going and they stood there, drying their cupped hands.
Back in the bar, Drew felt happy again. The idea that she was not coming had been exorcized. He looked frankly at his watch, willing now to appear what he was: a man looking forward to the arrival of his date, who was a little bit late. He looked at his watch but hardly registered the time—it didn't matter, really. She was a little bit late now, and so to the pleasure of awaiting her imminent arrival was added the slight satisfaction of being wronged, of being made to wait. To the pleasure of her arrival would be added the pleasure of being apologized to, and of being able to sweetly deny that there was anything to apologize for.
At his table the waitress had, with outrageous presumption, left the bill for his whiskey sour. The place was continuing to fill up; presumably she thought she'd clear him out and make room for a larger party. He left the bill and his jackets where they were and made a leisurely circuit of the entire bar, like a lord surveying his manor. He even felt a lordly, pitying benevolence towards all those who were not waiting for Miranda, and who did not even know what they were missing.
He poked his head out the front door to see if she was there. She was not, but he might as well have a cigar. The rain was still light but he was feeling less adventurous without his jacket; his shirt would not dry very fast, or at all, in the stifling fug indoors. So he moved out to the end of the smokers' queue and stood with his back to the cool damp brick wall and lit one of his cheap, tarry Ser Humanos. He did not much care for the taste or the stink of them but he felt ridiculous smoking cigarettes, which he thought looked laughably small sticking out of his large head. Tonight he smoked with skillful efficiency, taking a drag on each inhale while maintaining the natural pace of his breathing.
His eyes became unfocused as his mind slipped a cog and shifted into neutral, one of those pauses, or absences, that had begun to occur to him more frequently since he had stopped sleeping. It was not a daydream, nor was it a loss of consciousness; his mind simply stayed still for a moment, spinning like a pulley that had lost its belt. His thoughts did not depart, but merely hung there, on hold, as if suspended in some gelatinous ether. He felt like an empty room, a finely furnished room where a party had just been held, but now stood silent and grey in the first light of dawn; or like an empty office, a newsroom vacated for a fire alarm drill. Soon it would come back to life. In the meantime he smoked, drawing nicotine-rich smoke into his lungs and expelling nicotine-depleted smoke in smooth sine-waves, so that the boundary between inhaling and exhaling could almost not be distinguished.
"Bloody awful weather it is."
Drew unlocked his gaze and came back to life.
"Fuckin' A," he agreed.
The old man who had addressed him came a little closer, grinning and leading with his pelvis.
"Though it don't do not to be grateful it ain't worse."
After deciphering this, Drew agreed: "No it doesn't."
"Folks down in Colombia have it rough now. Never mind them Philippiners."
"It's bad all over," Drew agreed.
"Not all over," said the old man slyly. "Chinese have bee-youtiful weather."
The old man fixed his rolling eyes on Drew. "You know why them Chinese have such bee-youtiful weather?"
"No," said Drew, resigning himself to the inevitably racist punchline.
The old man tremblingly lifted his hands, like an oracle; but when he spoke it was unemphatically. "Cause they control the clouds is why."
Drew, thinking of the graffiti he had just seen in the bathroom, said, "So I've heard."
But seeing that Drew was willing to speak to him and prepared to treat him with respect, the old man cut to the chase: "Say, my friend, you couldn't by chance spare a little change for a bite to eat now could you?"
So the guy was schizoid after all. He was panhandling, anyway, which meant he had to be homeless, which almost certainly implied some kind of mental illness. To be homeless nowadays you had to be crazy—what with the new laws and the EHC and the semi-vigilante "jogging groups" and the cops turning a blind eye.
Drew pulled out his wallet and passed the man a twenty, with an air of paying off a debt to an old friend. It was illegal to patronize panhandlers, too, but he did not really think that that law was being enforced much. He tried to look casual for the other's sake.
The old man took the bill and looked at it critically, and for a moment Drew had a flash of paranoid fear that this supposed bum was actually an undercover cop, and that his backup would spring out of hiding and arrest him, and Drew would have to show them his I.D. and tell them who he was, tell them to call Sergeant Harmon, tell them he was only doing a story on panhandlers ... But then the old man stuffed the bill down the front of his pants, ordered God to bless Drew, and stretched out his legs and aimed his pelvis down the street.
Drew felt a pang of disgust for the idiotic new laws and the grinning moron in the White House who had lobbied for them. Ordinary, generous, law-abiding citizens were being made to feel guilty, being made to feel like criminals for wanting to help other citizens in need! The fact was he hated the President—hated him even more than most of his colleagues did, because he could not freely express his hatred. Everyone automatically assumed that surely, as the man—one of the men—who had blown the whistle on Holroyd, Drew Dunkel must approve of the charming independent who had come in to replace him, and the whole stupid corrupt two-party system with him. And it had been true: he did approve of the President, at first. But he had hardly been alone in that; he was not the only one swept away on the tide of relief that had followed the initial wave of flabbergasted indignation. And it was a long time before the new President revealed his true colors. And still more time was required to shake anyone's defensive conviction that, though obviously bad, he still must be better than what he had replaced. Drew never got that far; he never had to. He left D.C. shortly after Sheila and Miranda left him. He came here, signed on at the Post-Times, and went back to being an ordinary reporter. He gave up politics. But when he refused to talk politics everyone assumed it was because he was stubbornly loyal, because he did not want to admit that he had been wrong about the President. As if he were the only one! Ah, but that was just what made everyone else so bloody smug: they admitted they had been wrong; they were like religious converts, holier now for having once been sinners.
Back inside at his table he reflected further on his annoyance and found that perhaps it was not all directed at the government. Part of it was directed at the old panhandler. In general he did not mind panhandlers, and before the new laws he had usually given them what little cash he might have on him. It was this new underhandedness that irritated him. You felt you were having a real conversation, however odd, with another real person, however odd—and then you found that it was just a trick, that this was just some bum looking for a handout. It was the deception that rankled. It was the same with telemarketers. When you answered the phone you expected it to be someone you knew, or at least someone who knew you. Then you found out—sometimes later than sooner, especially if they called you on sill—that you were just one of a thousand people they had to call, that they only wanted you to buy something. It was the disappointment, rather than the invasion of privacy per se, that galled him. And it must be worse for others: his phone rang all the time, but there had to be poor lonely shitmeats out there who might not get more than a couple of calls a day, a week, a month. How insulting for them, how demeaning to discover that the person on the other line was only a telemarketer mimicking a real person, or worse yet, a piece of telemarketing software mimicking a real person!
His phone rang. He smiled. A telemarketer at this hour? No. Miranda calling to say why she was late, or to say that she was finally on her way.
Drew Dunkel here, he subvoked.
I'm sorry, who is that? said the generic, chip-generated voice of a sill phone.
So it was not Miranda; she hated sill phones. She'd even had her earbugs removed, he recalled.
Drew Dunkel, he repeated. Then, since it might always be someone returning one of his calls for a story, he added: Post-Times.
The caller said nothing for a few seconds, then hung up: his earbugs chirped glumly to signal that the connection had been dropped.
Drew ordered a coffee from a different waitress, who said nothing about the bill still lying on the table. He reminded himself that he could look at his watch at any time. This thought gave him comfort.
Perhaps she was often late. He could almost fit that into the character sketch he'd begun to make of her. It could be a minor quirk of hers, the result of being too happy-go-lucky. (Was she happy-go-lucky?) She'd been on time for lunch. She was probably like him, probably had a tendency to lose track of time. She'd feel terrible when at last she looked up at the clock (from whatever she was working on—some drawing or painting) and saw how late it was. Then maybe she'd call, or she'd dash out the door. Maybe, feeling bad, she'd stop along the way to pick up something for him, some little gift ... He did not think that likely, somehow. She did not seem like the type to buy gifts. But it was a pleasant daydream, and he indulged himself.
Then, as if in payment, another daydream unfolded. Like a man in perfect health wondering what it would be like—what he would be like—if he were mortally ill, he began to toy with the idea that she was not going to come at all ...
she's not coming.
But that was bad luck. It wasn't good to tempt fate.
On the other hand, bad things happened when you weren't expecting them. People getting on an airplane that was about to crash did not have premonitions. Therefore to give yourself premonitions was the surest way to avert disaster, was it not? If he could really convince himself that she was not coming, then she'd have to show, wouldn't she? It would be too much of a coincidence, too uncanny, too much like precognition otherwise.
Then again, it wasn't good to tempt fate ... How awful you would feel if you imagined the most horrific scenarios possible in order to keep your loved one safe, and then found out the next day that your nightmares had come true! You would feel that it was your fault. If she did not show, even after he convinced himself that she would not, wouldn't he feel responsible? Wouldn't he feel rather like he had asked for it?
He drank his coffee and watched the young couple. They must have noticed him, a big man with a beard and bottle-thick glasses sitting by himself in a crowded bar, sneaking glances at his watch ... Was he beginning to look like someone who had been stood up? Even if she showed up now, this very second, had he not already been waiting too long to recover completely from the humiliation? Poor bastard, they would think. Poor shitmeat. She probably keeps him waiting for an hour or two every time. Probably there are times she doesn't show up at all. And yet the poor sadsack bastard keeps coming back for more ...
Well, when she showed up, they, or anyone who might be watching, would simply assume that some emergency had delayed her. And they would see what a beautiful young woman she was and they would wonder how the hell someone like him had ever managed to woo such a creature ... No, they would assume, correctly, that she must be his daughter. And they would see him in a new light. As a dad who meets his twenty-year-old daughter for drinks in a loud, trendy downtown pub. And they would probably think: I wish I had a relationship like that with my father.
A group of drinkers had moved to a nearby table from the bar and were now hotly debating which Beatles songs George Harrison had written. Drew silently corrected their mistakes until someone remembered that they could look it up. The table fell silent as everyone consulted their PDRs.
He sighed. He had been waiting a long time.
"I told you he didn't sing 'Blackbird.'"
He called the number she'd given him. He did not even know who it belonged to. "People" she was staying with in town, she'd said. He hadn't asked. It hadn't occurred to him to ask. As he dialed, he felt a surge of guilt at the omission. In a way, he deserved to be stood up.
Some voice actor's voice came on the line to repeat back to him, one number at a time, the number he had just dialed.
Hi, he subvoked, this message is for Miranda, Miranda this is uh Drew, I'm at MacMillan's but no sign of you yet. If you get this, give me a call.
And then, making the decision as he uttered it, he added: I'll be at home.
He could not wait for the waitress or for the bill; he had to follow through, get up and leave now, before his bluff could be exposed. He had to prove to himself (or perhaps to the cosmos) that it had not been an idle threat, that he was not the type to hold his own fortune hostage, saying: If she doesn't show up right away, I'm leaving!
Luckily he had some cash on him, but, unluckily, nothing smaller than a fifty—which meant leaving a more than one-hundred-percent tip. Ah well, fuck it over. He told himself it was only fair, for having occupied the table for so long.
He could feel the lacquer-skinned young woman's appraising eyes on him. She knew. She knew that he had been stood up. She knew a loser when she saw one. At best, he supposed, he might have looked to her like a solitary drinker too ashamed of his solitude not to pretend that he was waiting for someone. What was worse, he wondered: to be stood up, or to have to pretend to be stood up? In a sudden fit of self-defensive pride, he looked squarely at the young woman and gave her his best old roué's grin.
But the woman was not there at all. The table was empty.
Just as he was getting up to struggle with his coats the waitress came by and asked, ingenuously, if she could maybe get him some little bit of change? He could perhaps have left the fifty and slipped away, but he could not very well tip her thirty bucks to her face.
"No," he said, snatching up the fifty, "I'll charge it."
It took her five minutes to return with the charge machine, in which time he began, strangely, to fear that Miranda would show up after all. But she did not. And so he went back to feeling disappointment.
He entered his cin and spoke the first part of Mike's phrase into the mouthpiece. The machine lit up red.
"This damn thing ... Been doing it all night." She gave it a shake, blew on the mouthpiece, and put it down on the table again. "Give it another try," she suggested, hunching over the table, as if he were trying to light a fire.
He gave it another try, intoning loudly and clearly into the mouthpiece: "Maybe I should want to thank you for the pleasure ..."
The machine lit up yellow—insufficient phonemes.
"Too damn loud in here," the waitress said. "I don't suppose you have cash?"
He started again, giving it his best, richest, most Dunkelesque intonation. "May bee eye should want too thang-k you four the pleh-zher of how choice it goes." The machine went green.
"Huh," she said. "Never heard that one before."
"My friend came up with it. Shortest sentence with every English phoneme. Supposedly."
"Huh," she said again, raising her eyebrows as if she'd just witnessed something odd but not very extraordinary—like a dog shitting in a cat's litter box.
"He's a writer," Drew explained, by way of apology.
On his way out the door, he heard someone say, "Used to be a brilliant ..." The rest was drowned by the music, but he thought the next word could have been "reporter."
But then, in the quiet darkness of his car, he became less certain. It might have been something else, something innocuous. "Used to see a million cavities," perhaps, spoken by a dentist praising some advancement in oral hygiene. Perhaps they had not been talking about him at all.
But the sting of the criticism, even if it was imagined, lingered in his body as restlessness. He drove quickly, rakishly, turning right on red lights even if they took him off course—drove, that is, unlike someone headed home.
From the billscreens he passed on the freeway his earbugs received jingles and sales pitches, truncated and blurred into an almost soothingly nonsensical potpourri as he passed rapidly through their broadcast ranges:
... take one home today, only at future soldiers, the shit-hot new album from Billie Bruiser, out now is illegal. It's not worth the risk. Always buy loose. Get Joosed. Cut acne. Fuck wrinkles. Fuck ugly. Fear. The war on neo-fascism is everyone's resplendent records. Chinese soldiers, the she didn't come but that's no reason to scientists say! Treat yourself right! Eat what you ...
He got off the freeway and the world fell silent. Maybe she'd stood him up on purpose. Maybe she'd never intended to come at all. Maybe this was payback. Maybe—
He turned on the radio. Someone or something deranged with lust was singing what sounded for all the world like
Gotta getta nuppin-sided hatchet baby
Gotta gemme little summa you-ay poo-tay
What the hell was a nuppin-sided hatchet?
At a red light he pulled out his PDR and looked up "nuppin." There was no such word. He tried "nup," thinking perhaps that the hatchet in question had been sided by a process of nupping. Nothing. Anyway, what did it even mean to "side" a hatchet? Did hatchets even have sides? Well, sure, like any object had sides. But surely there was no special siding that needed to be added to hatchets. And even if there were such a thing, why the hell would anyone want to sing about it? What was this doing on the radio? What the hell was going on?
He turned the radio off and, under the weight of silence and stupefaction that proved how alone he was in the world, drove straight home.
He put out fresh food for the cat, who was nowhere in sight. Usually Volley came sauntering as soon as he heard the door creak open. But not tonight.
The apartment was, even by his standards, a mess. He wrenched open the window in the kitchen to dispel some of the funk emanating from the sink (it wasn't just the unwashed dishes; the plumbing was bad) and was rewarded with a blood-curdling shriek from the street below. He stood there for a moment, unsure what to do, his heart hanging dead in his chest, until the shriek came again, exactly like the first, and he relaxed. It was obviously not a cry for help, but a scream of pure solipsistic rage and frustration—the scream of a schizoid nutbat. Well, let someone else call the PIMH hotline or rustle up an impromptu jogging group. It was none of his business.
He poured fresh hot water over the dishes, stirring up new smells. He retreated to the bedroom and started to consider whether or not he should begin taking off some of his clothes. It seemed, at the moment, as dreamy fatigue began to blossom behind his eyeballs, a question fraught with subtle, far-reaching difficulties. He sat down on the bed to think.
The screamer screamed again, and this time, instantly, as if they had been waiting for it, someone else screamed at her to shut the fuck up.
"That'll work, you shitmeat," he muttered. As if a woman standing in the street, in the rain, screaming at the top of her lungs for no good reason, in the middle of the night, is going to suddenly come to her senses and realize that her behavior is socially unacceptable.
He was reminded of Sheila, who was always freshly appalled by every meaningless, violent crime committed the world over. "Why," she always wailed, "would anyone do such a thing?" She could not get it into her head that other people didn't live by the same moral precepts that she did, that there were other people who might not even have moral precepts. Even the guy who went around hitting random people over the head with a hammer was, in her book, guilty not of being out of his fucking mind but of an inexcusable breach of etiquette.
Why would anyone do such a thing?
Shut the fuck up!
The woman in the street, however, did not scream again.
The cat appeared in the doorway and looked in at him, or rather past him, like a butler averting his gaze from his master's latest debauchery. Drew meowed at him. The cat paid no attention and, after pausing a moment to show that his decision had nothing to do with Drew one way or another, stalked elegantly away.
Fuck the cat. Fuck Sheila. Fuck Miranda.
He called Lois; she wasn't home. He called Yvette; she wasn't answering. He called Astrid. "Sorry, toots, I'm booked solid."
He even called Moonie. No answer.
Then he called Denise, switching over to voice to show that he was vulnerable.
"How'd it go?" she asked sleepily.
"Oh, honeybubble, did I wake you?"
"No no, don't stretch it. I told you I was going to—"
"Listen, Nise—will you marry me?"
After a pause she said, "You poor thing."
"Never mind, then. But listen—can I come over?"
After a pause, briefer than the last, she said, "Of course you can, but what—"
"I'll die if you say no. I can't be alone tonight."
"Drew, I said you could."
"Unless you've got some special errands that need running first."
"Please," he said. "I need you to be nice."
"Okay," she said. "Nise is nice. Come on over, Doopy Poo. I'll trim your toenails. How would that be? Would that be nice?"
During the drive to Denise's, "Avalon" came on the radio, and he began to feel a little better.
Probably the attractive young woman at the pub had not been paying any special attention to him.
Probably Miranda had not stood him up. What the alternative might be, he still could not imagine—and did not like to pursue the possibilities.
Probably she was fine. Probably she would call him sometime the next day with an explanation, and an apology.
When the song was over, he switched to the oldies station and made a deal with the cosmos: If a Beatles song came on before he reached Denise's, then he had been wrong; Miranda had not intentionally stood him up, and everything would be explained.
But on the drive he managed to hit every red light; a car on the freeway in front of him had a license plate whose first three letters were "GON"; and though he sat in the car for ten minutes on the street outside Denise's apartment, not even a single lousy George Harrison song came on the radio.
That night, for some reason, he slept well.