[p.1]Ryan rounded the corner at a dead run, just in time to see the bus merge with traffic and disappear. He flung his briefcase down and leaned over to support himself. He was going to be late for work. Again.
He got his briefcase, walked to the bus stop, and slumped to the bench. There wasn’t another bus for twenty-five minutes. He wished he could go back home for a shower and a couple of aspirin, but Catherine would just laugh at him.
It was hot for a morning in May. He turned so the sun wasn’t shining in his eyes.
He would probably find a note from Ross in his box when he got to the office—an invitation to watch kayaking slides during lunch or some other crazy thing. But Ross’s friendly notes were just his clever way of telling you he knew how late you were.
The cars rushing by made his headache and nausea worse. He’d have to wait a while before he ate the Almond Joy in his pocket.
Candy bars for breakfast, Catherine would say, that’s a fine way to lose weight.
[p.2]Telling her he wanted to lose weight had been a big mistake.
The previous night they had seen a news story about a local marathoner. “You know,” he said, “I think I’ll start running again.”
“That would be great if you would stick with it,” she said.
He couldn’t argue with that. He had made several short-lived attempts to run regularly.
Then she went to bed, and he lay on the couch, watching The Tonight Show, Entertainment Tonight, and David Letterman, going into the kitchen every hour or so for a bowl of rocky road.
She didn’t think he would start running again; maybe he would surprise her.
Bikila was wonderful to watch in the ’60 Olympics, striding mile after mile through the streets of Rome with no pain in his eyes.
Ryan checked his watch. His bus had been a minute or two early. The next one was already five minutes late. It finally came, and a wave of light-headedness hit him as he went up the steps. He had to get feeling better; he was out of sick leave.
“Good mornin’,” said the bus driver.
“Hello,” said Ryan, digging into his pocket for some change. He sat near the front so he could keep his eyes on the road. The bus started down Fort Union Boulevard, past his family’s dentist’s office, past the video store where he took the kids to get movies, past the supermarket where Catherine shopped. They had been in the area for ten years, and he liked it. He wondered if they would still be here in a year, or if he and Catherine would still be together in a year. He wondered if they would still be together in a month.
He leaned his head back against the bench and closed his eyes. He didn’t know why he had stayed up so late the night before. It had been almost 2:00 a.m. when he walked back to [p.3]the bedroom. He stood in the doorway watching Catherine, not sure if he loved her or hated her.
The bus slammed to a stop, and some guy wearing a Utah Symphony T-shirt got on, sitting across from Ryan. Catherine liked the symphony. They hadn’t been for months.
He got to the office at 8:30, just as Ross stepped out into the foyer. “Good morning, Ryan,” boomed Ross, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Morning,” said Ryan.
He closed the door, sat down, and rested his head on the desk. He was still sick to his stomach. He checked his bottom drawer—good, he still had a Coke left. He popped it open, foam spilling onto the desk, and poured himself half a glass.
He opened a folder and took out Ross’s memo, the pebble that had precipitated the landslide.
Characteristically, Ross had folded the typed memo in half and written “To Ryan” on the outside.
A week earlier, Ryan had heard from one of the writers that Ross was planning a major reorganization of the design department. He asked Ross if that were true.
“Yes,” Ross had said. “I’d like to set up an advertising section and a documentation section and keep them separate. I think things will run much more efficiently that way.”
Ryan said he’d really prefer to be in advertising. Ross had given his standard reply: Please give me a memo on the subject, and I’ll consider it.
Ryan wrote a three-page memo listing reasons why he should be in advertising and how he could contribute. The next day he got a copy of Ross’s tentative organization chart. He had put Ryan in documentation, working on military contracts.
Ryan wrote another memo requesting a position in advertising or at least the opportunity to spend half his time there. I’m not sure I could keep my sanity if I had to spend all oj my time working on military manuals, he wrote.
[p.4]Ross’s reply had been brief:
I appreciate your concern over the reorganization. I do believe, however, that this change is the best
for the Company, and that things will work out fine.
A curt note telling Ross off-that had been Ryan’s original plan. But, lying on the couch at 1:00 in the morning, a fresh bowl of rocky road in hand, he had changed his mind. He was just going to quit.
Between sips of Coke he rested his head on the desk. After a few minutes he called Bob.
“Hi, Bob, this is Ryan. I had a note to call you.”
“Yeah, Ryan. Ross is getting worried about the Instructor’s Utilization Handbook.”
“That’s what I figured. I’m working on it as fast as I can.
It’s these darn charts.”
“I tried to explain that to Ross. This afternoon he’d like to see what we’ve done so far.”
“Oh, brother. I don’t have time to work on it before then. I’m trying to get corrections ordered on the Hardware Reference Manual.”
“Which is much higher priority than the Instructor’s Handbook.”
“I’ll see if I can put Ross off for a while. But when you do have some charts ready, I’d be glad to start proofing them.”
“Okay, thanks, Bob.”
He looked at the type he had just received for one of the charts.
[p.5]COMMAND File Name Toggle Position 1 Disk space Start Time Available memory
Mode Message stop time
He had to ink in the lines for the different parts of the chart, cut apart the type, and paste it down. He had seventy or eighty charts to do.
Fifteen years ago, finishing school, he would have scoffed at the possibility of working as a “production artist,” let alone pasting up computer manuals to meet military specifications. He expected to concern himself with color, shadow, perspective, and tone, but here he was fussing over rules, figure titles, legends, and identification numbers.
Someone knocked on the door. He pulled an art board onto his desk. “Come in.”
It was Miles, with a bottle of Coke in his hand.
“Looks like you need a refill,” said Miles, filling the empty glass.
Miles closed the door and sat down. “You look sick.”
“That’s good, ’cause I am sick.”
Miles took a long drink of Coke.
“So this is the question,” said Ryan.
“Let’s hear it.”
“What do you do when you find that your marriage and your career are both failures?”
Miles turned silent. “You’re asking the wrong man,” he said after a moment. “Besides, you’ve still got your kids.”
“True. But that doesn’t mean I’m okay.”
“Yeah,” Miles said, “I know what it’s like. I felt like I had a noose around my neck the last couple of years Mindy and I were together.”
[p.6]“Well? What did you feel like when you got the divorce?”
“Like somebody had tightened the noose.” Miles smiled and refilled Ryan’s glass.
“That’s encouraging news.”
“I don’t like to admit it,” said Miles, “but there were times, when things were really bad, that I used to wish Mindy would die. I didn’t wish her a violent or painful death; I just half hoped she would die in her sleep or something like that. Then I would still have the kids and could start over in some kind of meaningful way. I felt guilty about that.”
Miles had straddled a chair, resting his arms on the back. He loosened his tie and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows. He had a pack of Winstons in his shirt pocket.
“Something must have happened,” said Miles.
“Catherine told me she wants a divorce.”
“Oh, then it’s no mystery why you straggled in here the way you did.”
“And it all started with a thermos,” said Ryan.
“Last night she asked me to wash Allison’s thermos, fill it with milk, and put it in the fridge. I said I would. Well, I forgot.
This morning she sees that thermos sitting on the counter and gets upset, saying I forget things like that because they aren’t important to me and so on and so on.”
“And how did you leap to divorce?”
“I mentioned my beloved job.”
“That explains it.”
“I said I had a lot on my mind, and she gives me this oh, no, not problems at the office again sarcasm. I lost my temper, told her I wouldn’t be complaining about my job any more because I was about to quit.”
Miles nodded his head and said, “It’s all perfectly clear.”
“The first thing I know, she’s talking divorce. Then I realized I was late for my bus.”
[p.7]“At least you know it started with a thermos. Mindy and I had tremendous fights. But if you asked me to analyze one of them, to give you the details of the actual conversation, I couldn’t do it. I can’t remember what we argued about. It was always a blur to me, a haze.”
“Yeah, it’s amazing.”
“Do you think Catherine is serious?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t believe Ross wants to put you in charge of designing military manuals,” said Miles. “Those things require no imagination whatsoever.”
“I won’t be able to stand it. You don’t know what drudgery it is to work on those things hour after hour, day after day, week after week.”
“Maybe Ross is sending you a message,” said Miles.
“No doubt about it. He knows I’ll start looking for another job now. But Catherine wants me to keep this job.”
“Oh, come on. She just doesn’t want you to take a cut in pay. Isn’t that it?”
“She doesn’t think I can find a better paying job. So far she’s right.”
“Here you go,” said Miles, refilling Ryan’s glass.
“I just want to feel that I’m in control of my own life,” said Ryan.
Miles took another drink of Coke and smiled. “Well, you don’t ask for much, do you?” Miles looked at the stack of books on Ryan’s bookcase. “Oh, no, Best Evidence, Conspiracy, Crime of the Century, Death of a President. I thought you were going to give all of that up.”
“I tried. I can’t,” answered Ryan.
“I thought all this assassination stuff gave you nightmares.”
“Lately I’ve been dreaming about my job, not the grassy knoll.”
[p.8]“Where were you when you heard Kennedy had been shot?”
“Out on a country road near Ucon, Idaho,” said Ryan. “My uncle and I were out patching potholes. An old farmer pulled up behind us in a pickup. ‘They’ve killed Kennedy!’ he yelled. They.”
“I was in sixth grade. Our teacher turned on the radio when she heard about it. We sat there listening to the radio, and she was crying. I’ll never forget that.”
“It’s not hard to understand, is it? Why I can’t stay away from those books?”
“I guess not.”
Before he left, Miles asked if Ryan had seen Ross yet. “Yeah, when I came in.”
“Then maybe you can tell me what flavor of boot polish he was wearing.”
“Get out of here.”
Ryan put a Buddy Holly tape in his cassette player.
“Rave On,” “Oh Boy!” “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Not Fade Away,” “Well All Right,” “Maybe Baby,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” He had known these songs by heart for twenty years. No, twenty-five. He didn’t know why he still thought of the late 50s as only twenty years ago.
Buddy Holly dead at twenty-two. That didn’t make any more sense than Kennedy dying in Dallas. It made less sense. At least murder could be explained. But an airplane going down in a snowstorm? An hour or two of inclement weather—that’s what killed Buddy Holly.
Ross was clever enough to make sense of those things, for he was a philosopher. I know there are personal tragedies, he would say, but the sum is good. This is the best of all compossible worlds.
He was always proud of himself when he used a word like compossible, or tautology, or teleology.
Ryan heard four distinct raps at the door. Ross.
“Pardon me, Ryan,” said Ross, opening the door slightly.
“I was wondering about the charts for the Instructor’s Utilization Handbook.”
“Bob called me about those. I told him I had to work on the Hardware Reference Manual.”
“When do you expect to finish that?”
“I’ll get the corrections ordered sometime tomorrow.”
“I’d appreciate knowing when the preliminary charts are ready,” he said, making a note on a yellow, legal-sized note pad.
“I’ll let you know.”
“’Kay,” said Ross, closing the door. He never said okay always kay like Captain Queeg. Maybe he would soon be haunting the office with a perplexed face, rolling two steel balls, demanding to know who had swiped his strawberries.
Ryan pulled out the printouts for the Hardware Reference Manual. He had to identify all the corrections, inserting a number of computer codes, work that required great artistic ability.
Last night he had promised himself he wasn’t going to cower to Ross any more. So here he was cowering, promising to have the corrections done tomorrow when he really needed more time than that, allowing Ross to act perfectly innocent.
Catherine had never really believed him when he said it was torture to work for Ross.
Now where was that exacto knife? He was always losing it. If you were an artist a brush would be your most valuable tool. But if you were in production it was the exacto knife. You can’t get by without it. Not for a minute. You never know when you might have to trim a position stat or cut in a type correction.
Ryan reached in his desk for an ad he had clipped from the Sunday Tribune.
Immediate opening for an artist with basic understanding, training, and skills in graphics, type-setting, etc. Duties include production, art, layout and design. Must be able to produce advertising art as needed. Samples of work must accompany application and will be returned. 974-6879. Ask for Cathy Waters.
He dialed the number.
“This is Cathy Waters.”
“Hello, I’m interested in the opening you have for an artist.”
“Yes. May I ask what kind of experience you have?”
“I have a Master of Fine Arts degree from Idaho State, and I’ve been with Maeser Communications for ten years.”
“I see.” She sounded impressed.
“I’ve worked on magazine and newspaper advertising, and on technical manuals.”
“I see,” she said again. “Could you come in for an interview on Monday?”
“Yes.” He made the appointment and jotted the address down on a slip of paper.
Have you got another job lined up? Catherine asked him when he told her he was quitting. When he told her no she started in about the house, saying they’d lose the house with him out of work. It was always the house. A few years ago he had been offered a job that paid less than his job with Maeser. He wanted to take it. How will we pay our mortgage? Catherine had asked.
He walked across the hall to Miles’s office but Miles wasn’t there. Ryan stared at the pictures on the bulletin board—boy in a little league uniform and a girl in pajamas, both of them smiling. He didn’t understand how Miles kept those pictures up, knowing he wasn’t the one to comfort them when [p.11]they had nightmares, or take care of them when they were sick, or read them stories every night.
Walking back to his own office, he saw Miles joking with Shirleen at the copy machine. With that short black hair, a hint of Hawaiian ancestry in her face, and her contagious smile, she looked good, as usual. She was wearing a white sweater with a black skirt and black heels. It was obvious Miles liked her. And he didn’t seem especially worried by the fact that she was married.
Ryan dropped two quarters into the slot and stared down the aisle of the crowded bus. No seats, as usual. He would have to stand until they got to 3300 South, or farther. He hated the bus ride home, with no room to breathe and the fumes suffocating you, the bus lurching in the five o’clock traffic. He moved to the rear, grabbing the rail and dropping the briefcase to the floor. The bus crawled down Main Street, more and more people getting on but no one getting off. They made the turn at 400 South, and he wondered if she would get on at the city and county building. She did.
Young, maybe twenty-two, always wearing a dress that fit her perfectly, smiling and saying hello to the driver.
Ryan tried to remember the first time he had seen Catherine, wondering if she had excited him like that. He tried to remember how she looked when he picked her up for dates. It was hard to believe his pulse had ever jumped at seeing her, hard to believe there had ever been anything between them except dullness, long arguments, and moments of artificial truce.
Maybe the girl on the bus reminded him of Rose, or maybe he liked to watch her simply because she was beautiful. If she ever sat next to him he might pull out something to work on. She would ask if he were an artist; he would lie and say yes.
[p.12]After that she would say hello when she saw him on the bus. Then he would be driving home some day and pull up to the light near the city and county building and see her standing at the bus stop. In the rain. He would roll down his window and yell through the wind and rain, “Can I give you a lift?”
She would open the door holding a newspaper over her head and laughing. “I would appreciate it. If you don’t mind a total mess sitting next to you.”
She would sit there next to him in her girlish way and complain about the rain and about a run in her nylon, water still dripping off her face and neck.
The bus jerked to a stop, and he almost lost his balance. He watched the fast-food joints slip by—Taco Time, Arctic Circle, Burger King. This girl probably hadn’t been born when he graduated from high school. The bus turned onto 700 East. This girl probably had no idea who Buddy Holly was, let alone Abebe Bikila.
He found a seat when the bus turned onto Van Winkle, unable to stretch out because his knees already touched the next seat. He had loved bus rides in high school, going to Twin Falls or Boise for track meets. Someone always brought a deck of cards, and they bet dimes and nickels. Stud poker, five-card draw, blackjack.
Then there were times, late at night, coming home, when quiet settled over the bus, and he sat alone near a window, staring out at the dark fields and the solitary farm houses and the stars, believing his life would never end.
That was well enough when you were young and healthy. You needed hope when you were young. But it didn’t take long to learn that you weren’t invulnerable at all.
Some kid with a backpack was sitting next to the girl, making her laugh.
[p.13]“Kids think falling in love is all fun and games,” Miles said once. “They have no idea how agonizing it is to fall out of love.”
The house was empty when he got home. He found Catherine’s note on the table.
I need some time. We’ll be at Loraine’s. Come and get the car if you need it, but please don’t call me. I don’t blame you for wanting to quit your job, and that isn’t really where my dissatisfaction lies. I just don’t feel like anything ever changes. We have had the same arguments over and over for ten years. I am so tired. I just need some time.
The note, in Catherine’s meticulous hand, surprised him. That morning, as he was running for the bus, she had yelled that they might not be there when he got home. But she had yelled that a thousand times; she used it as a tactic regularly. And she had never done anything about it.
The same arguments over and over for ten years. That was an understatement.
He went into Allison’s room and looked at the Cabbage Patch Kid on the bed and the Trapper Keeper on the floor. At the pom-poms and backpack hanging from the wall, the necklaces strung over the jewelry rack, and the bank on the dresser. Allison must have taken A Wrinkle in Time with her. He had been reading her five or six pages a night.
Blocks and cars lay scattered on Tyler’s floor, along with a Big Foot 4 X 4, a kaleidoscope, and a doctor’s kit. An ET poster and a foam rubber dart board were taped to the wall. The plants were Catherine’s influence. [p.14]He went into the bedroom and looked at Catherine’s desk. Sandburg’s Lincoln, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, To the Finland Station, and Democracy in America lined her desk, with a plant on each side. The rest of her books filled the two bookcases next to her desk and overflowed into the hall. He had bought her a lamp for Christmas, and she loved to sit at the desk and read, the lamp her only light.
He walked back into the living room and stood at the window. Once, screaming that she wanted a divorce, she had demanded that he name his conditions.
“The kids,” he said.
“I bet,” she had answered. But she had never pursued the conversation.