[p.97]Ryan pushed the door shut and turned off the light. He couldn’t stand a light shining in his eyes right now. He fumbled for the can of Coke on his desk, opened it, and took a long drink.
He sipped the Coke in the darkness. He wished he could lock his door. Then he would sit in the darkness all day long. He was too sick to work.
The door opened, a shaft of light hitting his eyes.
“All right,” said Miles in an official voice, “get your clothes back on.”
“Yeah,” laughed Ryan, “that might teach people to knock.”
Miles flipped on the light. “Good grief,” he said, “you look bad.”
“Yeah, I blew it last night by staying here till 1:30.”
“Working on the Instructor’s Utilization Handbook. Don’t want to miss the deadline.”
“Oh, your vow not to miss any more deadlines,” said Miles.
“Right. I really want that promotion.”
“Well, you never know. Ross might just be a good guy.”
[p.98]“I had a rough night, I’ll tell you. Worst case of diarrhea I’ve had in centuries. Kept running to the bathroom in between working on that handbook. I was totally shot by 1:00. That’s when I crawled out to the car and made a beeline for 7-Eleven.”
Miles grinned. “For what?”
“Keopectate,” laughed Ryan, “and—and—” he was laughing too hard to finish.
“Ha!” Miles slapped his thigh and pointed at Ryan like he was drawing a gun. “Don’t tell me—don’t tell me—Keopectate and Preparation H.”
“You got it, baby.”
Miles was delighted, shouting out one guffaw after another.
Ryan broke into a cough, which only made them laugh harder. Ryan wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Did the clerk express profound sympathy?” asked Miles.
“She didn’t say a thing.”
“But did she crack a smile?”
“Not the slightest hint of a smile.”
“A great humanitarian indeed.”
“You bet,” said Ryan. “She ought to be given a medal for keeping a straight face.”
“So it was Keopectate and Preparation H, huh? I know what it’s like. I went through long sieges of diarrhea when Mindy and I were splitting up.”
“Yeah. Getting a divorce is almost as traumatic as working for Ross.”
“Almost,” said Miles. “But seriously, do you need something? I could run over to the drugstore in the mall.”
“Thanks, I’m okay.”
“Well, I gotta get back to the salt mines. Hope you make it through the day okay.”
[p.99]Ryan slumped in the chair, another stomach cramp coming on. He sipped the Coke. The Keopectate hadn’t taken effect yet.
After ten or fifteen minutes he pulled out some art boards and started to paste down type. You have real talent, an art professor had said. He had talent, all right. Pasting down columns of type was an art never mastered by Rembrandt or Renoir.
Someone slid an envelope under his door:
TO ROSS CALDWELL— STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL—TOP SECRET.
It was taped shut. Ryan ripped it open.
TO: Ross Caldwell
FROM: Brewster Dewdrop, Chief Custodial Engineer
RE: Unsanitary Condition of Room #138
Last evening, one of our custodians left work ill because of a rather distressing situation in room 138, which is assigned to Ryan Masterson. I don’t wish to dwell on the disagreeable details. Let me simply request that you see to it that Mr. Masterson does not use his waste-paper basket for any unusual purposes. We are aware of his recent illness and are most sympathetic. But we cannot have custodians encountering what the unfortunate worker did last night. These are hourly employees who are generally not entitled to sick leave. Under the circumstances, however, we have provided the worker in mention with compensation. I trust this problem will be taken care of.
Ryan smiled, despite another stomach cramp. Miles said you were okay as long as you could smile. Maybe he was okay. The phone buzzed.
[p.100]“Hello, Ryan. This is Ross. Could you tell me the status of the illustrated parts list?”
“The technical illustrator we hired is just finishing his initial work. Henning and I will check it over next week. Then we’ll do the thumbnails.”
That was Ross. Ryan knew he had asked Henning the same question yesterday. And gotten the same answer. So why did he call you up and act like he knew nothing about it?
His phone buzzed again. It was Catherine.
“We just got a notice from Prudential,” she said. “Our mortgage check bounced.”
“Man. I put my check in the bank the minute I got it. They must have just barely beaten us.”
“What are we going to do, Ryan? We’re just getting farther and farther into the hole.”
“Maybe I can get some free-lance work.”
“Or maybe I can substitute teach again.”
“You’d leave the kids with a baby sitter?”
“I don’t see what choice we have. How do you have time to free-lance? Lately you’ve spent your evenings working.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“We’ve got to do something,” she said.
“I know we do.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Can’t we talk about it when I get home?”
“You always want to put things off,” she said.
Ryan smiled, despite another stomach cramp. Miles said you were okay as long as you could smile. Maybe he was okay.”
“Talk to you later,” she said. Then she hung up.
He walked down the hall to the men’s room, then got a drink of water. He paced the ha11s, wondering if he and Catherine would ever get comfortable financially and if he would ever find time to start painting again.
A promotion would mean an increase of $5,000 a year, [p.101]maybe more. That would really ease the pressure. But he didn’t want to think about that.
There was another envelope under his door when he got back to his office, this one addressed to him.
UTAH TRANSIT AUTHORITY
OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT
Dear Mr. Masterson:
Lawrence Goodfellow, driver of the 7:00 a.m. inbound Cottonwood Heights bus, has brought the following matter to our attention. According to Mr. Goodfellow, you boarded the bus at 7000 South Highland Drive. As the bus approached 4500 South, several passengers proceeded to the front of the bus and complained of unpleasant noises and odors filling the bus. At 2100 South, all of the passengers (except you) proceeded to disboard (each of them requesting a transfer slip). There was extreme crowding on the next available bus, causing inconvenience to both passengers and driver. In fact, several passengers suffered slight injuries and were transported to LDS Hospital.
Mr. Masterson, it is not my intention to hold you entirely responsible for this unfortunate situation, but the next time you are ill, please take a cab.
Charles Nelson Wiley
President, Chair, and
Chief Operating Officer,
Utah Transit Authority
Miles had him smiling again. Maybe he was okay. If Miles ever left, he wouldn’t survive.
Miles came in with a book in his hand.
[p.102]“What?” said Ryan, “I was hoping for another memo.”
“Listen to this,” said Miles. “‘I sat remembering the faces of men in my office—and they’re in every office—who have reached their middle thirties, with their big chance lost somewhere in the past. At some point or another it dawns on them, and from then on you can see it in their eyes, that the confident ambition of their youth is never going to be fulfilled.’”
“‘The confident ambition of their youth’—that’s good,” said Ryan. “Who wrote it?”
“I did. I’m sitting in my office working on a short story.”
“Okay. Jack Finney,” said Miles.
“Well, he knew what he was talking about.”
Ryan left work early and stopped by the arcade. There were only three or four people there, and no one near him. That was the way he liked it. Standing alone in the dark playing pinball. With no one to tap you on the shoulder and tell you your time was up, or tell you you were spending too much money, or tell you your lunch break had expired.
But you never knew. It was perfectly possible that you would feel a tap at your shoulder and turn around to see Ross standing there. No, not Ross. Not at the arcade. That was the beauty of it—no one to hound you.
He lined his quarters up on the glass. THE HAUNTED HOUSE. A fine pinball machine, with eight flippers and three levels—cellar, main floor, and attic. He was in another world.
In the real world people were always there to hound you. Prudential calling about the check, reminding you that they owned the house, not you. People at the office asking for type not yet in from the typesetter or stats not in from the printer or corrections that needed attention or photos that needed cropping. Ross, eternally vigilant, with tongue clicking and nodding of the head that all added up to one opinion: you aren’t up [p.103]to snuff. Ross was an expert at leaving friendly notes in your box or buzzing you once and then buzzing you again if you didn’t answer right off the bat, but he hounded you best when he simply watched you.
The girl on the bus, hounding you with her perfect heels and perfect legs, perfectly manicured nails, silver earrings, her beauty and her sweetness.
At home, mail on the counter: overdue bills from Mountain Bell and Mountain Fuel (FINAL TERMINATION NOTICE), notices that you have exceeded your Mastercard limit or that a late fee is being added to your medical bill.
He slid another quarter in the slot and pushed the button, a new ball popping into place. He pulled back the handle and shot the ball to the top. It bounced into the side hole and jumped to the attic. He needed to keep it alive for a while and then send it to the cellar, where you could double your score in no time. You had to get at least 100,000 points on the first ball or you were in serious trouble.
Their big chance lost somewhere in the past. Maybe that was what had happened to him. Miles understood.
Ryan loved the kids, but in their own way they hounded him, too. Allison and Tyler both wanting stories every night, Allison wanting him to listen to her read, wanting a drink of water, wanting to know if he could take them swimming this week. Tyler wanting to go to Super Sliders, refusing to go to bed, having accidents in the bathroom, fighting with Allison, calling out for a light in the middle of the night.
All you needed was a little rest, but you could never get it. Always one person after another hounding you and hounding you, barking at your heels.
He put another quarter in the slot. He wanted to forget everything but the game itself, play until he turned to find Neal standing next to him, then his dad sitting at the table in the [p.104]corner. The three of them would walk out of the Snowball together and climb in the pickup.
It was Neal who made him aware of the incredible range of color visible at night in the wilderness—one white for the moon, another for stars, and another for clouds; the sky bluish-black, mountains brown-black, faraway trees green-black and close trees jet black, the boring, three-dimensional daylight world giving way to a refreshing, two-dimensional scene where mountains and trees formed lines and angles you’d never imagined before.
He kept the ball alive, waiting the way Neal waited. Jump on those flippers too soon, and you’ll make a bad shot.
One night in Alpine Neal had knocked on the door.
“Norma kicked me out,” he said to Clark. “Mind if I stay here tonight?”
“Of course not.”
“She thinks I drink too much.”
Ryan was ten or eleven. He stood outside his room and watched Neal come in, a six-pack of Lucky Logger in one hand and the keys to his pickup in the other.
He threw both on the table.
Clark went to bed, and Ryan and Neal sat at the table splitting a Coke. Neal was talking about the tons and tons of dirt they were hauling in for the dam when he looked up and saw April standing in the hall.
“Sorry for disturbing you, April. Hope you don’t mind in throw my sleeping bag on the couch.”
“No, we don’t mind, Neal. You can always come here.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Why don’t I put on some coffee.”
“No, don’t go to the trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.”
She brought the coffee and sat at the table with them. “Been reading any good books lately?” asked Neal.
[p.105]“Yeah, you know, something to pass the time in this place.”
“I noticed East of Eden on the couch.”
“Yeah. It’s a good book.”
“I think the movie’s playing in Idaho Falls,” he said.
Ryan’s mother asked him to get the paper. He brought it over from the magazine stand.
“Yeah, here it is,” she said. “It’s at the Rio. James Dean. Oh, it’s too bad about him dying. Julie Harris. Raymond Massey. It looks good. I’d like to see it if I could get Clark interested. A Star is Born and A Man Called Peter are also playing in Idaho Falls.”
“Ryan and I are going in to the Motor-Vu,” said Neal. “We’re going to see Wild Bill Elliott in Topeka.” He winked at Ryan.
The confident ambition of their youth, Ryan said to himself.
Well, he didn’t have the touch, not today. He was never going to win a free game. He gave it one last try and then lumbered down the stairs to the frozen custard stand, ordering a large cup of caramel cashew. Smoother than ice cream.
When he got home he went out to the patio to work on Allison’s bike. He had been promising for a week to get to it.
Ryan’s dad had always enjoyed working on bikes—fixing flats, raising Ryan’s handlebars, putting on new chains, working with patience and thoroughness.
In Alpine his folks had bought him a red, three-speed Schwinn for Christmas one year.
“I love it. Can I take it for a ride?”
“Of course not,” said his mother. “Not with two feet of snow outside.”
“I’ll be careful. Promise I will.”
That bike had been the most important thing in his life. Now he couldn’t even remember what became of it. They must [p.106]have given it to someone or taken it to the dump or donated it to the Salvation Army. Or something. He couldn’t remember.
Tyler worried about those things. When Ryan told him he had a teddy bear as a boy, Tyler asked if he still had it.
“No, I don’t.”
“Where is it, Daddy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you lose it?”
“I guess I did.”
Ever since then, when Ryan tucked him into bed with his teddy bear, Tyler asked about Ryan’s teddy bear, whether he had found it yet and ifhe was sad about losing it. A teddy bear, a Schwinn three-speed, a box of baseball cards, a bag of marbles, a bow with five or six arrows—he could think of all kinds of things he had treasured as a kid. He had lost all of them, and he couldn’t even remember how.
He woke in the middle of the night, surprised that he didn’t have a stomach ache any more.
There was never anything worth watching on the tube at this hour of the night. He didn’t have the energy to read. He had been asleep since 9:00 and didn’t feel tired. He stood at the window and looked out at the front lawn, street, and surrounding homes.
Everything was perfectly quiet; he could have almost believed the scene had been created, humans not yet in place. That’s how it had been twenty ‘years ago, over twenty years, when he ran alone in the early morning. The first sound you heard was always traffic, always distant and light, a few good people up early and on their way to work. Any badness left in life was about to be overtaken and consumed by goodness.
He got back in bed, moving close to Catherine. He touched her, letting his hand rest in the softness of where her arm and back met. He had been madly in love with her once. He wasn’t [p.107]going to deny that any more. And she had been in love with him. They were still together. Who could say what was possible in the future?
He waited for a week but heard nothing from Ross about a promotion. He asked Shirleen if she knew anything.
“Yes,” she said. “Ross has made a couple of offers. Both to outside people. Hasn’t he told you yet?”
“No,” said Ryan.
“What is the matter with him? I thought he would have told you first thing.”
Ryan walked down to Ross’s office and knocked.
“Come in, please.”
Ryan closed the door behind him but didn’t sit down.
“I understand offers have been made on the manager positions,” said Ryan.
“Please sit down,” said Ross. “Yes, that’s true. I’ve wanted to talk to you, but these deadlines on the hardware manuals have taken all my time. At any rate, I want you to know that I seriously considered you for the position. But we had several outstanding candidates, and I tried to make an objective decision. It hasn’t been an easy decision.”
“Everyone else has already been told of this decision. Why did I have to come to you to learn of it?”
‘‘I’ll be honest with you, Ryan. It slipped my mind. I apologize for that.”
“Well, I don’t think you ever had any intention of promoting me. I would have appreciated being told that up front.”
“I didn’t have any such clairvoyance,” said Ross. “Maybe it’s good for us to get this out in the open. I don’t want you to be unhappy here.”
“Then why am I in the documentation department, working on military contracts?”
“I think you’re doing a good job there.”
[p.108]“But it’s not what I’m genuinely interested in.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there, Ryan. Of course, I guess you could say most of us would be doing something else if we had the choice.”
Ryan wanted Ross to get angry, but he knew that wouldn’t happen because it would make the true situation too evident. By staying calm, Ross could keep trying to convince you and himself—that he meant no harm to anyone, that he was simply doing his best, that he was trying to be objective and fair.
“I’m sorry we haven’t communicated better in the past,” said Ross.
Ryan said nothing.
“And about the promotion—I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
Ryan stood and walked out. He had intended to tell Ross off, maybe quit on the spot, then go tell Miles about the whole thing. Now he didn’t even think he would mention it. He didn’t feel like seeing Miles at all. There was no excuse for what Miles was doing. Being lonely didn’t make it right to make love to another man’s wife.
At the same time, he couldn’t keep thoughts of Shirleen out of his head.
It was 3:15. He packed up his briefcase, put on his jacket, and left the office.
The house was in chaos. Catherine was on the phone, angry, reading a warranty number to someone. Tyler and Allison were fighting in the front room, Tyler crying about her knocking down a tower. Legos and wooden blocks were scattered across the floor, along with pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, and candy wrappers.
Above Tyler’s screaming he could hear the CHiPS theme song blaring over the TV.
He turned the TV off.
[p.109]“I was watching that,” yelled Allison.
“Please don’t yell, Allison.”
“A food processor,” Catherine said loudly into the phone.
“I just purchased it two weeks ago.”
She looked like she was at the end of her rope. She wrapped the phone cord around her index finger, a sure sign of nervousness.
“The blade’s broken.”
Allison was crying now.
“Daddy, Tyler hit me in the face.”
“She ruined my tower,” sobbed Tyler. “And she hit me.”
“He hit me first. Oh, my eye, my eye.”
“I didn’t hit first,” argued Tyler.
“No,” said Catherine, “of course I didn’t use it for any unusual purpose.”
“Tyler,” said Ryan, “I want you to clean up your toys right now, please.”
“Allison has to help. She played with them.”
“I’m not helping after you hit me in the eye.”
“Allison, go in your room for a while, please.”
“I don’t want to, Daddy.”
He picked her up and carried her into her room. “When I tell you to go to your room, do it.”
“You hurt my arm, Daddy. You’re mean.”
“Stay in this room for a while.”
She slammed the door in his face.
“Could I please talk to that person?” said Catherine. “When will she be back? Is there anyone else who can help me?”
“Tyler,” said Ryan, “clean up your toys now.”
“No, I don’t have to.”
Ryan pulled a chair out from the table. “Okay, you can sit here until you decide to clean up the toys.”
“No.” He ran back to his room.
[p.110]Catherine hung up the phone. “You’re sick again, aren’t you?” she said.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Who said anything was wrong?” he asked.
“You’re home two hours early looking like you just lost your best friend.”
Tyler came into the kitchen carrying a box of cars. He dumped them on the floor.
“No,” said Catherine. “You get those back to your room right now.”
She reached out and slapped him on the thigh, twice, and he started to scream.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Catherine said to Ryan.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. I’m here with the kids all day. Then you come in and act like I’m a child abuser just because I spank Tyler.”
“I just think there are more effective things than spanking.”
“Yeah, I noticed how well your discipline was working while I was on the phone.”
“Well, I’m trying.”
“I’d like to see you try your system after a day with two kids who won’t mind and who constantly fight.”
“I never claimed it was easy to be home with the kids. But life at the office isn’t a bowl of cherries, either.”
“Okay, I thought something had happened at the office.
What this time?”
“Do you have to ask so sarcastically?”
“Sorry. What happened?”
“I didn’t get the promotion.”
“We should be surprised?”
[p.111]“It’s never going to work,” he said. “I want to consider working as a free-lancer.”
“You mean free-lancing at night?”
“As soon as possible.”
She was picking up toys in the living room. “Ryan, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about quitting my job.”
“I don’t understand you. After the day I’ve had. And with us bouncing checks and getting threats about overdue bills, you waltz home and start talking about quitting your job. I don’t understand you at all.”
“Is there ever a good time to talk about it?”
“Plenty of times better than now. But with our financial straits it is simply out of the question.”
“You’ve already made the decision, huh?”
“Don’t try to make me feel guilty, Ryan. You know you couldn’t match your present salary by free-lancing.”
“Not at first.”
“Do you have to just stand there? Can’t you help me clean this place up?”
He started to pick up some legos. “I wouldn’t make as much at first. But I could after a while. I’d work very hard at it.”
Tyler was still screaming. “Be quiet,” Catherine said to him.
“That doesn’t matter, Ryan. What would we do for money? I can’t make much substitute teaching.”
“We could get a loan.”
“Don’t act so astonished.”
“That’s just foolish,” she said. “We’re paying off two loans right now. We couldn’t even qualify for a loan, let alone pay one off.”
[p.112]“We could get a long-term loan on the house. I bet we could get twenty thousand.”
“No. We’ve put too much into this house to lose it.”
“Who said anything about losing it?”
“Risking it, if you want to mince words.”
“There’s a big difference. We’re risking it already just by having a mortgage on it.”
“That’s a reasonable risk,” she said.
“Considering the situation, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to get a loan right now.”
“Tyler,” she said, “you either sit in that chair or help clean up these toys. And stop that screaming.”
“Did you hear me, Catherine? I said I think it’s reasonable to get a loan right now.”
“I heard you. Tyler, get back here right now. Turn that TV off, Allison.”
“I just wish you’d consider the idea,” he said.
“Ryan, do we have to talk about this now?”
“No, we don’t have to talk about it ever. It’s clear you’ve got your mind made up.”
“We can’t get another loan. Anyone can see that.”
“My staying with Maeser, working for Ross the rest of my life—that’s what will make you happy.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“We’ll never have to risk the house as long as I stay with Ross. I could come home smiling every day, telling you what a wonderful day I had at the office. You deny it, but that’s exactly what you want.”
He had done it. They could fight for hours, trading barbs that seemed to hurt neither of them. But then he could say something and she would glance at him with hurt in her eyes. She would leave the room, and he would sit there by himself, not knowing whether to be mad at her or mad at himself.
And she did.
[p.113]She didn’t speak to him the rest of the night. When the kids were finally asleep, he drove over to Hardees for a Big Deluxe, a large order of fries, a large Coke, and a chocolate shake. He ate while he watched the Tonight Show.
The Coke didn’t even dent his headache. He went to the cupboard for two Tylenol, three.
Half-way through the Letterman show he wandered back to the bedroom, Catherine stretched diagonally across the bed. He sometimes joked with her about sleeping that way; she always denied it.
He nudged her; she moved over without waking up. He lay down on his back and gazed at the ceiling. He was tired, tiredness running through every inch of his body. He needed twelve or fourteen hours of sleep, not five. He didn’t know why he always stayed up so late. He regretted it every morning but then forgot that regret when the next night arrived.
Five hours. Then back to face Ross again, and his remote courtesy. Managers were expected to be polite to their underlings. And Ross did what was expected of him. He was very civil with his employees. Today Ryan had been angry, not Ross. He had been perfectly civil. Tomorrow would be the same.
The sum of his treatment was contempt, but it was tacit, so that he didn’t even reveal it to himself. You would never have the pleasure of seeing him admit that he had no interest in you or your life.
If Ross had a brain in his head, he had to know how important this was to Ryan. He knew Ryan was qualified. On top of that, he had two openings. What was hard about making the change? Ryan would have gone to great lengths to do a good job; he would have made sure Ross never regretted it. And the move would have changed his attitude toward Ross, giving them a chance to get on the right track.
It was all too perfect: to think he could really be happy at [p.114]Maeser, to think that Ross would relinquish his advantage over him, to think he could start bringing in more money.
A perfect situation, and Ross had done everything possible to foul it up, insulting Ryan with a series of asides—little comments to staff members about how he was having a hard time filling the two openings, notes to Shirleen to extend the Tribune ad, a remark to Henning about what a fine candidate he had just interviewed.
What would wise old Ross say if Ryan brought that up? Yes, I think I could have been a little more discreet.
To top it off, he had informed the other applicants of his decision before telling Ryan. That was an unfortunate oversight.
“I can’t sleep with you tossing and turning like that,” said Catherine.
He pulled back the sheet and got out of bed.
In the last ten years he had probably seen more of Ross than anyone, including Catherine and the kids. What kind of luck was that?
He was certain he could make it as a free-lancer if he just had time to get started, just a few months. He had made several good contacts at Maeser. He could keep busy with design work, amusing himself with occasional paste-up jobs. They could get twenty thousand on the house and pay it back over twenty years. He had already discussed it with a loan officer. They would never come close to losing the house. He would make sure of that.
But that was too perfect for Catherine. She had to foul things up.
He sat down in the living room and turned on the TV, watching two rock videos before switching to news. Into the kitchen for a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. After two bites he threw the sandwich away.
He flipped through the newspaper.
Back to the fridge. Nothing looked good.
[p.115]Back to the couch. He pounded one of the pillows with his fist, ten, twenty times.
“Ryan, what are you doing?”
It was Catherine, standing in the hall in her robe.
“Nothing,” he said.
He pulled into the office at 8:40, his tiredness doubling and tripling, like his anger. He just wanted to close his door, pour himself a Coke, and sit and stare at the wall for five minutes, a half hour, however long it took to get started with his imbecile job. He wasn’t worried about someone hounding him for this or that. He wasn’t worried about Ross asking about an illustrated parts list or an instructor’s utilization handbook or a site preparation guide, and he wasn’t worried about Ross putting him on probation or failing to give him a raise or firing him. He wasn’t worried about anything. Nothing could phase him now.
It was a little after ten when Catherine called.
“Your dad just called,” she said.
“That’s mighty unusual.”
“It’s your Uncle Neal, Ryan, he’s had a stroke.”