“Is this Jon’s Place?”
The speaker was a woman in late middle age. She looked pinched and angry, carried a leather attache over one shoulder and a clipboard in one hand.
“Yes,” I said. It was the Monday after my night and morning of uncertainty with Emily, and I was still tired. I bit back a very sarcastic response—of course it was Jon’s Place, it said so on the awning and the menu and the chalkboard and the window and the little funny laminated post-it notes that we had plastered all over the cash register and the counter—“Can I help you?”
“City permit inspector,” she said. “I’m here to see that you’ve got all of your permits in order—business license, license to sell food and drink, liquor license…”
“We don’t sell liquor,” I said.
“What about this?” she said, pointing to a bottle of flavor syrup on our display rack.
“That’s just crème de menthe flavor,” I said. “Mostly sugar, no booze.”
“OK,” she said, looking disappointed. “You aren’t slipping the real stuff in there and serving to to minors, are you?”
“Uh….no.” I can safely say that I’d never been asked that one before.
“Good. Now let’s get to those permits.”
We kept all of the city permits and things in a haphazard binder titled City Crap. I fished the binder out of the bottom cabinet drawer, where we kept it along with our invoices and delivery chits. The binder overflowed with paper and envelopes. I gathered it up as best I could and dropped it on the counter.
“Here you go,” I said, then “can I help you?” to the next customer. The line was about three people long.
“Which are my documents?” said the inspector.
Again, I bit my lip, as I wasn’t psychic and it was impossible for me to know which of the hundreds of permits required by the city of Cambridge fell under her bailiwick and was Emily into me or not?
“I can help you in a bit,” I said. “I have customers to take care of.”
“You have to help me,” she said. “I can shut you down if I want to, and then nobody will get anything.” She started to drum her fingers on her arm, and I could feel the people in line starting to get restive. Nobody said anything, but one or two of them changed position, crossed a leg over the other, or switched the newspaper from one hand to the other.
Gerald came up to the counter from his normal chair. “I can help her with that,” he said. “If she’ll tell me what to look for, we can sit down and go through the binder together, you can serve everyone, and everything will get done.”
Gerald looked at the inspector, who managed to look even more pinched. She hemmed, hawed, and spoke.
“That might work,” she said. “Are you an employee of this establishment?”
Gerald and I looked at each other. I nodded slightly.
“Yes,” he said. “I work here part-time.”
Barry’s friend Gina came in right as the two of them sat down. It was interesting that she’d evolved in my consciousness from Caramel Cappucino Girl to Barry’s Friend, and I noted in passing that it was even more interesting that I wasn’t interested in her as a girl when she walked in the door; she still had the cascading brown hair and the brown eyes and a good fashion sense–wool coat like most people were wearing in the cold, but really interesting shoes; kind of like Converse All Stars but more feminine, as if Chuck Taylor had received a couple of shots of estrogen and then designed some shoes.
“Hey, Gina. Double Cappuccino, caramel?”
She nodded, dropped four dollars on the counter and found an empty table in the near corner, away from the windows and the fireplace. I whipped up the drink quickly and, seeing no customers in line, brought it over to her.
“Thanks, Pete,” she said, taking the off-white mug in both hands and sipping the foam.
“Perfect, as usual. Want to sit?” she gestured at the empty chair.
“Sure,” I said. Jenny was down in the storage room doing some organizing, but she’d be back up in a second, and the Monday early-afternoon crowd was pretty mellow, anyway.
“What’s new?” she said.
“Not much,” I said. “Dealing with the winter, you know.”
“It’s not winter yet,” she said.
“It’s snowed,” I said. “It gets dark at just after four-thirty. It’s winter.”
“Hm…” she said. She started to tap her finger on the side of her cup, looking up and down and out the window, anywhere but where I was sitting, but nowhere for more than half a second. I followed her gaze from the orangish outside autumn light to the frazzle-headed matron with papers all over her table and coffee all over her papers to the pomeranian that was waiting outside for his master to finish a blueberry scone.
“Pete, am I cute?” she said.
Not the question that I’d been expecting, that. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s a story,” she said.
I looked around again—activity in Jon’s Place had moved to the negative; a couple of people had left but nobody was coming in.
“Shoot,” I said.
“My last boyfriend was a mortician,” said Gina in between sips. “I moved to Florida to live with him, and that was why we broke up.”
“What, did he bring his work into the bedroom or something?”
Gina smiled. “No, not really. I mean, he is pretty strange; he’s been into dead things since he was a little kid, skipped college, went to mortician school. Hence…Florida.”
“I don’t get it.”
She took another bite. “Well, some people call it ‘God’s waiting room’, and they’re not far off. Death is a growth industry down there, and Troy was snapped up in a second by a place in Pompano Beach. We lived in Fort Lauderdale, and you’d think it would be great, right?”
“Not really,” I said. “I’m not into hot weather. But I guess if you like the beach you’d have been set.”
“Oh, I love the beach. Not lying out and tanning, but I love walking on when the sun isn’t so strong and you can listen to the waves as they come in. Sometimes it was just enough to down out the traffic noise on A1A.”
“So, I still don’t get it.” I said.
“It’s the whole God’s Waiting Room thing. Everyone down there is eighty-five and waiting to die. I took a waitressing job, and I was making a ton of money by flirting with geriatric Canadian snowbunnies. Put on a miniskirt and sandals and you’ll pull thirty percent, easy. Troy was really good at his job and was running his franchise within a few months.”
“Yeah, most of the mortuaries in Florida are owned by a few national conglomerates. It’s really weird.”
The thought of being buried by the equivalent of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart was unnerving. I don’t ever really think about dying—nobody my age does, even the Goth people who’ve been wearing black and been fascinated by the Cure since the third grade. Sure, when a relative dies or something like that I might think about it for a while, but the truth is it’s so far away as to not really be there. So I don’t think about it much. I like to picture myself lying in state in a large church, filled with friends and admirers, including some people who I’ve never even talked to but whose lives I’ve affected in some grand manner through a small gesture or a kindness. Sometimes I think that half my funeral will be people saying “He made me a great cup of joe on a terrible morning, and that made me keep going.” Not the most incredible fantasy in the world, but I take what I can get, and I like to think that my morning coffee makes some people’s lives a little bit more bearable. However, I can’t imagine someone with a clip-on swipe ID tag filling my veins with formaldehyde, lying in state with the coffin sponsored by IBM and the fires of the cremation started with Duraflame brand synthetic firelog.
“Yeah, that is weird,” I said. “So what did you do?”
“I tried to stick it out for his sake. I mean, he’s living in the best place in the world for a guy who likes dead things. I think I was kind of tired of his death schtick, though.” She paused. “A few months ago he brought a real human skull home from work, and I freaked out a little bit.”
I nearly choked on my coffee. “What? What’d he do, rob a grave?”
“No,” she laughed. “They keep skeletal parts around for teaching purposes—it was a mortuary and a school where he worked—and he swiped one. I just got skeeved out when I would wake up at night with the damned thing grinning at me. Skulls are always grinning; they can’t help it. It didn’t make it easier to deal with when Troy spray-painted it with blacklight paint, so it was sometimes glowing faintly in the light of the stars or the moon through our window.”
“That would bug me out a bit,” I said. I’d like to point out that that particular sentence was in no way intelligent and added nothing to the conversation. Gina had paused after “window” and I had to say something. It’s expected. Illogical, but that’s the way conversation works, and if you’re talking to someone who you don’t know all that well, conversation cannot flag. Better to be hyperactive than boring, although I really couldn’t add much to this train of thought, never having dated a mortician or any other funerary professional.
“I guess I just got tired of it all. I got tired of mortician parties.”
“What happens at a mortician party?”
“Well, all the young morticians are Goth or punk or whatever, so they put music on and drink, like everyone does when there’s a party. Except Troy would have A Clockwork Orange or Faces of Death on continuous vidoe loop through the TV and all his friends would chant along to some of the gorier parts. I mean, the guy knew all the lines to every movie in the Evil Dead series.”
“Was he really twisted, or what?”
“No. I mean, he was really into dead things, like I said. But it was kinda innocent—he was like a little kid, and he had a real reverence. He treated bodies right, y’know? He was just so childlike.”
“And you’re not into dead things?” The whole worship-Death scene was a bit out of my league, and I wanted to keep it that way.
“No,” she smiled that smile again, the one which made the backs of my knees cold. “I’m into living.”
“So if you’re into living,” I said, “Why the online stuff?”
“Not much else to do if you’re new in town.” She shrugged, knocking some hair off her left shoulder. “I mean, it’s not like going to Allied and yelling at someone over the beat is going to make me any friends.”
Her point was good enough to make me stop and stare down at the table for one of those seconds where a million thoughts run through your head. How do people make friends, anyway? My best friend in town was Adrian—we hang out outside of work, grab drinks or catch a film at the Kendall Square arthouse theater. I have his phone number, he has mine, and neither of us feels uncomfortable calling and asking what’s up on a given evening. When it comes down to it, that’s what a friend is: someone you can call up without being afraid of rejection. Common interests are okay, but what every lonely person wants is to be able to call and have the voice on the other line sound happy to be on the phone. Maybe that’s why phone sex lines are so popular—I called one once just to see what it was like and the voice on the other end sounded like she had discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when she heard my voice—so deep and sexy, she said. I’ve seen too many movies; all I could think of was a three hundred pound late-middle-aged housewife who had the phone fitted with a directional mouthpiece so her marks wouldn’t hear the eight kids running around our house smashing the windows and pissing on the upholstery and generally ignoring her sideways shouts to shut up, shut the Christ up can’t you see I’m on the phone?
I shook my head, coming back to earth and Jon’s Place.
“That’s the problem,” said Gina. “I haven’t gotten any since I broke up with Troy last year, and I’m wondering if I’m ugly to Boston guys or something.”
This set my mind a-whirling anew. I’d never thought about people who weren’t guys having sex trouble. I figured it was a one-way street; guys get lonely while women flit from person to person, meeting everyone under the sun just because it’s easier. Girls can dance together, meet for coffee, go out in packs and have people come up to them, all the things that it’s tough for guys to do because we all have a latent fear of being branded as gay; it’s yet another fear that’s left over from elementary school when it was funny to call people fag on the playground. Maybe that’s why I became friends with Adrian so quickly; he knew he was gay and thus had zero issues to deal with regarding latent homosexuality. But here was Gina telling me that it wasn’t all like that.
“Wait,” I said. “You’re saying that you don’t have people coming up to you, asking you out, things like that?”
“Not really,” she said. “I go out with some people from work every now and then. We have a drink or two and then everyone goes home and then goes out with their other friends. You and Barry are the only guys I’ve met in the past few months.”
“I can say this,” I said. “You’re definitely way to the positive side of ‘cute.’”
She smiled, making her cuter. “So what’s up with Barry, then?”
Oh my God. She finally came out with it. I’d watched her throwing herself at him to no avail, and she was coming for help from…me? Gina, the brown-haired definitely-cute one-time focus of my Meet Girl At Work fantasy, was asking me for help with Barry. Barry who at one point spent sixteen straight days in the apartment in the height of a fetid humid air-conditioner-less summer. Barry who, after two years, still possessed no hair-care products and (I assumed) washed out his still-longish hair with soap. Barry who had his room wired for surround sound with a fifteen-inch subwoofer so that when one of his lightning spells went off, the floor shook. Barry who somehow got by on one pair of shoes, a faded set of Nike cross trainers like the kind everyone had in the seventh grade. Barry, my somewhat-overweight roommate who sometimes went to the Star Market and bought their entire rack of Spaghetti-Os and ate them, unheated, for weeks on end. Barry who was definitely improving, who had asked me the other day if Tarantino had gotten some of his inspiration from Hong Kong action flicks, but was still…Barry.
“I’ll tell you,” I said. “On the condition that you help me with something else.”
“What’s that?” she said.
I told her my story of pizza tales and lesbian kisses, omitting certain details, like the exact number of times that Emily had bumped into me on the way home (three) and embellishing certain other ones (the length of the kiss changed from one line of the song to two, or, “about ten seconds”).
“Hm,” said Gina. “What you want to know is, is she into you?”
“Yeah, exactly,” I said.
“That’s not the question,” she said.
“The question is, are you into her?”
“Of course I am.”
“Are you? Would you be if she hadn’t given you a smack?”
“God, men are insane,” she said. “All guys ever think about is ‘does she want me?’ without every considering anything beyond an instinctive ‘hey, maybe I can get laid’ primal reaction. Maybe you should think more about her and seeing if she’s what you want; if she is, then maybe there’ll be something there. But if you don’t think about that, you’ll end up bored after six months and just having physical sex and renting movies all the time.”
Oh my God. I started thinking back to what Jenny and I had been doing after six months. In the last three days of our relationship I definitely remembered watching Some Like it Hot, The Godfather, Part III and Three Colors: Blue. We hadn’t done anything together that any two people couldn’t have done together.
“Wow,” I said. “You’re right.”
“See?” said Gina. “Men are kinda stupid sometimes. I’ve helped you with your problem, now you help me with mine. What’s up with Barry?”
“He’s Barry,” I said. “He hangs out in his room, plays games for a living and listens to the Sisters of Mercy a lot. I’ve been trying to give him a rudimentary cultural education, because as far as I can tell his experience started with the Commodore 64 and Colecovision and goes pretty much straight through to the Penium IV.”
She sighed. “I know all that stuff. I just figured that you guys would talk about…guy stuff.”
I shook my head. “Not really. When Barry and I first moved in together, I didn’t have much interest in what he was doing, and he didn’t really care about what I was up to. He stayed in evenings and did what he did, and I was usually out at work; when I started working here I was around less. Then, before I knew it, I’d lived with the guy for a year and a half and we’d barely had ten minutes of conversation at any one time. I’ve been working on him, but it’s been a long, hard job.”
“What are you doing?”
“Basic stuff. Starting with The Mark of Zorro and moving on to Tarantino and other related apocrypha.”
“Has he seen any John Woo yet?:”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s starting to get it.” I filled up her cappucino, on the house. She smiled at me, and the smile still made me take a pause. Man, she was just cute.
“Thanks,” she said. “So no tips, huh?”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I’d just call him up and make him go somewhere alone with you, make a move. That’ll probably work.” Of course it would work. I’d just given Gina a bit of advice that would work on any person with a functioning penis and no breasts. I didn’t no much about the former, but Barry had been losing weight lately because he’d been going out to eat more (who else can say that ?), and his nascent man-boobs had disappeared. She nodded, and it was almost cartoonish; I could practically see the light going on above her head. It annoyed me. Everything I had said was blindingly obvious.
She smiled. “OK, I’ll try it. So, you going to call this girl?”
“Probably,” I said. “But I gotta ask. You’re really into Barry?”
“I’m into big guys. You, for example, are way too skinny.”
She got up and left, a swirl of brown hair and tight jeans. I looked after her as she left.
“She’s cute,” said Gerald, who was refilling his coffee. “Who is she?”
“Forget it,” I said. “She’s after my roommate. You’re definitely not her type.”
“What’s he like?”
“Barry?” I laughed. “I don’t even know if I know anymore. He’s nothing like you, though. I’ll point him out to you the next time he comes in.”
“Hey, sorry,” he said. “It’s just tough to meet people when you’re unemployed, y’know? I figured you might have an in.”
The inspector came up, shaking her head. I felt my stomach tighten; I was pretty sure we had everything she needed, but…
“This binder is a disaster,” she said, soudning like the elementary school librarian that everyone hates. “It’s so disorganized; if your finances are like this I don’t understand why you’re still around.”
My stomach loosened a bit. “But everything’s there?” I said.
She nodded. “I’m going to make a note about how uncooperative you were, though. Watch yourself, young man. There are people with interests in this place; that’s why I’m here.” She tried to make those last words intense, but only succeeded in sounding like she was leveling a twenty-cent overdue fine. I covered a smirk with my hand until she turned around and walked out, swinging her arms with what was probably supposed to be authority.
“She’s incompetent,” said Gerald. “Everything was easy to find, but she kept overlooking documents and permits that she’d seen a minute before. Man…who hires for the city?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “But if you want a job here, you’ve just got one. Our schedule’s always full, but…well, I can find some hours somewhere.”
He grinned. “Thanks, Pete. I’m getting tired of coming up with excuses to get up in the morning.”
Barry showed up later in the afternoon. He was wearing a new pair of pants that I hadn’t seen before, olive-drab cargo pants with the little pull-string on the bottom that makes them go tight. I only comment on this because I’d never seen him wear anything but Levis 505s. His hair was hanging loose about his face and he was carrying a black shoulder-strapped briefcase with several zippered pockets.
“Hey, Pete,” he said upon coming up to the counter. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I said. I thought about telling him about the conversation I’d had earlier with Gina, but decided to let him fight his own battles.
“What do you think?” he said. “I’m going to change my look a little bit.” He spread his arms out and turned around in a circle, mincing on his toes, the oddest-shaped ballerina I’d ever seen.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Why?”
“I was thinking more about the stuff we’ve been doing; the movies we’ve seen, the magazines you had me look at. I wanted to look a little more….well, less like a guy who sits at his computer all day.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Movies,” he said. “Check it out.”
He laid the bag on the counter and opened it up. Chungking Express, Hard Boiled, and Fist of Legend.
“How’d you hear about these?” Fist had been on my list, but the other two were on my list of movies to see.
“Well, I really liked Enter the Dragon, and I saw that Fist of Legend was on your list, so I did a little research and came up with a couple of other Hong Kong genres. The guy at the video store said that these were the best example of the gritty urban epic and John Woo ultraviolence.
I couldn’t believe it; my program was working even better than I’d hoped. In my dreams and flights of fancy, I’d hoped that Barry would be able to make a quantum leap and jump to making his own interesting choices, never thought he’d actually rent a subtitled Chinese movie. I looked at him again. He was holding a DVD in one hand, and waving it as he spoke. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he was one of the film nuts who sometimes come into the shop and argue loudly about Coppola and Tarkovsky. They waved movies around a lot.
“What brings you here?” I asked. He moved to the side as a young pre-theater-looking couple came up to order.
“I’m going out to another bar with Gina tonight—she called me a little bit ago–and then we’re going to watch one of these movies. I wanted your ideas on the bar, the movies, that sort of thing.”
What was going on here? Why were both sides of this coin trying to talk to me about what they should be doing? It should have been obvious to either one of those two that asking for relationship advice from me was about as productive as asking Genghis Khan to explain pacifism. There wasn’t much point in telling Barry this; compared to most of the crowd he hung with I was probably the equivalent of Errol Flynn plus Charlie Sheen, squared.
“All right, Barry,” I said. “Where are you headed?”
“Just up the street to a place called…” he dug into one of the cargo pockets of his pants and pulled out a wrinkled printout. “Charlie’s Kitchen. Apparently they’re really good at hot dogs and beer, it says here.”
I took the printout from him; it was from Citysearch. Charlie’s is one of the last true dive bars left in the ongoing Yuppie-ization of Harvard Square. Get a cheap hot dog and some domestic beer and you’ll fit right in.
“I just wasn’t sure what they mean by ‘dive bar,’” he said. “That’s what I wanted to ask you.”
I laughed, and finished topping off the two cappucinos. Barry was definitely improving. Two months ago he would have asked me if a dive bar meant SCUBA lessons.
“Dive,” I said. “It means many things to many people. There really aren’t that many true dives left in this city anymore—places where old men go to drink away their miserable days over cold, cheap, domestic beers. Nowadays, ‘dive’ usually means that they don’t bother with a dress code and are proud to offer Budweiser on tap for less than three dollars a pint.”
“So which kind is Charlie’s?”
“Typical left-over dive bar that attracts what hipster crowd there is in Harvard Square these days. The jukebox is cool, the waitresses have tattoos, but there’s a definite lack of old alcoholics at the bar.”
“So nobody will try to beat me up?”
I chuckled. “Very doubtful. But be prepared for the service to be kind of surly. And order Budweiser, not any of the other stuff they have on tap there. Laugh if anyone insults you, and you’ll be fine.”
“I shouldn’t try to be manly or anything like that to impress Gina?”
I shook my head. “You’ve been watching too many movies. If you get into an argument, you’ll just get thrown out. Don’t bother.”
He sighed. “I don’t like beer, you know.”
“So? Nobody really likes Budweiser. It’s a means to an end, nothing more.”
“What’s the end?”
I winked at him. “Hopefully you’ll find out tonight.”
He blushed, gathered up his movies, and left. I sat down at a table with a cup of decaf, and stared after him as he walked away. He looked good, he really did. I thought about what I’d said to him, shuddered, and thought about spending the night in the storage room downstairs rather than coming home for the evening. No way I was going to walk in on the two of them.
Steven came in a short while after Barry had left. He was wearing a fedora and a trenchcoat, which only served to make him look shorter. I had noticed him before he had opened the door; he’d been outside talking on a small silver cell phone for about five minutes. He hung his coat on the rack near the door and took off the fedora, brushing it against his leg. Steven looked tense and tired as he walked up to the counter; his eyes were baggy and his hair was a disaster.
“Hi, Pete,” he said.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Relationship advice.”
He started. “Not really. There’s some stuff happening that I thought you might want to know about.”
“You’re going to get a health department inspection here in a few days.”
“So?” I said. The health department came around every six months, poked at things with their flashlights, usually found one or two small violations (one time the woman dinged us a point for having a whole coffee bean on the floor that I’d dropped twenty seconds before she came in), gave us a good-to-go certificate and left. It was usually a pain because they had a habit of coming in either early in the morning or during lunch, but our customers were pretty understanding about he whole thing.
“So nothing. It’s going to be a serious, serious inspection. Six of them are coming over, and they’re planning on being here for an hour. If there’s anything at all wrong, they’ll shut you down.”
“Where’s this coming from?” I said. “And how do you know?”
“One of my patients is a minutes-taker down at City Hall. There was a meeting, she was there; she was talking about it as the anesthesiologist was putting her under. It was weird, she was babbling about how there was all kinds of outside pressure to get this done. I just thought you’d like to know.”
“Outside pressure from whom?”
“She really didn’t know. She said that the guy who came into her boss’s office was wearing a Navy hat and looked kind of greasy. A great noticer, she is not.”
I looked up. “A Navy hat?”
He nodded. “That’s what she said.”
“Thanks,” I said. “How are things otherwise?”
He grinned. “Really, they couldn’t be better. I have to go, though. I told them I was going for coffee; I just didn’t say where.”
He turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. I poured
him a large. “You look like you can use this, and it would be weird to come back from going for coffee with no coffee.”
He reached into his wallet to pay.
‘No,” I said. “On the house.”
“Thanks,” He said, and walked out the door, picking up his coat as he left. He walked very quickly for such a small guy.
I put my head in my hands and laid my hands on the counter. Donnelly had been scoping us for a long time. It was like we were characters in a third-rate spy novel, or a recent Bond flick. What next?
“You do know you’re a basket case, right?” Adrian asked me as he flicked at my face with a small towel that had been white before he’d dipped it into the leftover-espresso garbage can. “Why don’t you just call her up?”
“I can’t do that,” I said. I hadn’t spoken to or seen Emily. I’d spent the whole day working with Adrian, and we had spent most of our conversational time talking about how I should call her or why wouldn’t she call me and why the hell was this sort of thing so hard, anyway?
“It’s not that hard,” Adrian said for the sixth or seventh time. “You just dial the phone. Or borrow Barry’s computer and e-mail the girl, if you’re a total wimp. I’ll give you her address. People do it all the time. Why do you make everything difficult?”
“I don’t make everything difficult.”
“Yes, you do. You’re making things difficult right now by denying your intrinsic difficulty instead of addressing the subject at hand, which is calling Emily and seeing if you really want something to happen with her.”
He wrapped the dirty towel around his fist and punched me in the shoulder. Hard enough to make a bruise, actually. “Why don’t you call her right now? Right fucking now? What’s the problem?”
“She’s your friend.”
“So what if I ask her out and then we go out for a while, say six or seven months, but then she’s got something, some little thing that just drives me completely nuts, so I become a total jerk and drop her like yesterday’s mail, and then she decides that because you and I are friends, you suck too, so you’re out one friend, all because I asked her out?”
Adrian sighed, turned around, and picked up the phone. “You total pussy. You are a giant sculpture of loose vulva.”
“What are you doing?”
“Dialing the number for you. Here.” He held out the phone. I could hear it ringing softly even though the earpiece was more than a foot from my head.
“Hello?” said Emily’s voice.
“Uh, hi. It’s Pete,” I said, kind of loudly because Adrian was still holding the phone in front of my face.
“Where are you callilng from? Sounds like you’re in a tunnel or something.”
“No, I’m not…uh….are you up to anything?”
“Right now? I’m painting my toenails.”
“No, I meant, um…Wednesday night.”
“Wednesday, no. You want to do something?”
I froze, panicked, made like a cute little bunny rabbit stuck in the way of a steamroller. “It’s a surprise,” I said.
“Hm…” she said, and laughed, which made me scared. “A surprise? Better be a good one.”
We said goodbye and hung up, and the fear wormed its way into my stomach and started to pull a Belshazzar on the lining. “What the hell am I going to do?”
He smiled. “Tomorrow.”
“Ade, nobody dates anymore. It just doesn’t happen. Remember the last one? It was a disaster.”
“It wasn’t a disaster; it just didn’t go well. This one can. Just think of something to do.”
“No way. There’s no way I can pull up to her house in my V-8 car and walk her to the doorstep, engage in a conversation that’s light and flirty, pull her to my head and give her a kiss, then drive home slowly while listening to Bill Haley and the Comets or Little Richard. I don’t even have a car, for Christ’s sake; do you realize how much that destroys the possible goodbye moment. Do we say goodbye in Park Street Station? On the train?”
Adrian snorted. “You have no romance in your soul.”
That wasn’t true. I had tons of romance in my soul, and always have. It’s a problem. We’re exposed to romance, or what purports to be romance, nearly every minute of every day; my favorite example comes from a Timex ad that showed for the first time during the Super Bowl a few years back. (Note: I don’t have a TV, but sometimes I watch the Super Bowl. I am an American, after all) It shows this guy in a business suit, a semi-schmuck, not the typical blue-eyed-blonde-stud type of guy that they usually show in commercials. This guy was a little bit thin and looks a little bit harried. He’s walking down a crowded street, nearly dropping his briefcase a few times, sometimes bumping into people. The camera switches to a brunette girl dressed like advertising people think business people dress every day: a skirt above the knees, jacket over a blouse, hair swinging behind her as she walks. The camera then switches to an overhead view, and we see that the two people are walking towards each other at a ninety degree angle, threading their way through the crowd, looking like they’re on a collision course. I rooted for the harried guy because you know that it’s been a long time for him and she’s perfect in every way, and as they’re about to collide they miss, and his pants leg just barely misses brushing her high heels as she steps away. The Timex logo comes up, noting that with Timex you’ll never miss an important appointment.
Why does this commercial work? Because we’ve been brainwashed, our minds wiped clean by popular culture—from Gene Kelly landing in Debbie Reynold’s car in Singin’ in the Rain all the way through anything starring Meg Ryan. Not that I have anything against Meg—I thought that the character she played in Joe Vs. The Volcano was great—but it wouldn’t kill her to play a role where she meets somebody through a friend or at work or something normal. Partially because of Meg, there are hordes of us who look into the eyes of everyone they see on the street or who we serve coffee to, trying to see if that mystical Hollywood connection is there, which it never is.
So I have romance in my soul. It’s just the wrong kind of romance; I want incandescent star-struck googly eyes, walks along the river, arm in arm, with a string quartet playing in the background. I want long mornings spent under the covers on cold days, building forts against the Arctic bone-deep winter chill with the blankets and a dark-colored down comforter. I want the story of Cinderella and Snow White and the first three years of Charles and Diana’s wedding, and I want it all in one package. So don’t go telling me I have no romance in my soul.
I suppose I could have told all of this to Adrian, but his eyes were riveted on a guy with a lacrosse stick who had just ordered a small coffee. He sidled over to me, his gaze never once leaving the dirt-covered mass of dried sweat who stood at the condiment bar adding a tinge of milk and the first of four sugars.
“Did you see his legs?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “What about ‘em?”
“You can see veins in his calves,” he said. “God, that’s hot. That’s so hot. That’s the temperature inner core of the earth multiplied by the surface of the desert on a hot day in Saudi Arabia. My God.”
“You know you have no romance in your soul?” I said.
He grinned. “Don’t use that against me. I’ve got more romance in any one of my appendages than you’ve got, well, everywhere.”
“Wait,” I said. “Say that again.”
“Appendages!” I said. “Appendages!” Several people looked up from their games of chess or philosophy texts at that. “Get it?” I said. “Appendages!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Ade.
“Adrian, can I tell you a story?”
He finished pouring a large Colombian, room for cream, and said “sure.”
All of a sudden, I had a plan, see. I had a great plan. I knew it was a great plan because I’d stolen it—lock, stock and both smoking barrels, from Ross. The story, as I heard it, sounds like a fary tail from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, and that’s the way I’m going to tell it. When I heard it my first thought was no way, nobody does that kind of thing in the real world! But I swear that it’s true.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Adrian.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been sitting there staring at the counter for a couple of minutes; I can only assume that you’ve been taken by a wonderful idea.”
“So spill it!” he said.
So I spilled it.
“Wow,” he said. “Are you looking to marry this girl? What, you kissed her and then she spent the night on your couch. Aren’t you worried you’ll scare her off with something like this?”
“Of course. But would that make any difference?”
Adrian split his face with a smile so broad I thought he wanted to sell me something. He grabbed me around the waist and started to twirl me like an eighth-grader in beginning square dancing class.
“Kickass!” He yelled, “Our friend Pete has finally grown hisself a set of luscious, tasty TESTICLES! And he’s knocked off some of the morosity that has hung over him like the proverbial Black Cloud of Sleepy Hollow for these past several months. His insecurity is gone! He’s ready to suck the marrow out of life without even coming close to choking on the bone! Ouw widdle boy is all growed up now!”
I was getting dizzy, so I asked Ade to shut up and put me down, and then I asked him if he would help me with The Plan.
“Wouldn’t miss it for Steven,” he said. “Seven o’clock?”
“Where are you going to do it?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ll call you at quarter to six with the details.”
“I’ll make sure to dress appropriately,” he said.
I finished up work at a record pace, interrupted yet again by Quentin Donnelly of Starbucks. I told him that Jon was on vacation in Thailand, learning how to be a monk, and that I hadn’t heard from him in three weeks because he’d taken a month-long vow of silence. Donnelly left me a business card, and I hightailed it home as fast as I could go. The street was packed with people, and traffic on Massachusetts Avenue was at a total standstill. People were standing on top of their cars, peering through the gloom of the early evening to try to see what was going on. I stopped a cop and asked him what was up.
“A train caught fire on the Longfellow Bridge,” he said. “Looks like it’s going to be a long night.”
In Boston, it’s always something. I started to compile a mental list of people who could help me out on short notice.
2) Barry? I wasn’t too sure what his schedule was like these days, and he’d never really like to go out of the house, but he was a definite possibility if I could get him to wear a shirt without any food stains.
3) Gina? She didn’t know Emily, and it’s always impressive if you have cute woman friends.
4) Hm….it was occurring to me as I made this list that I didn’t know enough people to implement the Plan as it had been done when I was in college.
5) Not only that, I hadn’t talked to most of the people I knew in quite a while, certainly not recently enough to call out of the blue and ask for a quick bit of help.
“Shit,” I said. I had stopped in the street, right next to a circle of old guys who were standing around spitting on the ground.
“You god tat right!” said one of the men, emphasizing his point by hawking out a huge yellow one onto the concrete next to a substantial pile of drying human mucus. One of the other guys, a white dude with a threadbare Patriots hat covering the greasy grey Medusa of his hair, stepped on the pile with an old Adidas sneaker. The first guy made an unintelligible noise—it sounded like my childhood cat coughing up a pretty nasty hairball.
As interesting as that was, it did absolutely nothing towards solving my particular problem; I had no surprise for Emily, and she was still taller than me, which meant that I would be even more nervous. My apartment was only a block away, and I still hadn’t thought of anything, and the night was getting to be later and later. I turned around; Barry wouldn’t be able to help, and I wasn’t going to sink to the point of looking up date ideas online.
Massachusetts Avenue goes toward the Charles River, and that’s where I walked that night. I walked past the new pan-Asian places and a red-brick hotel that had gone up since I moved to Boston, the kind of place with a faux-Mexican restaurant on the first floor. I walked through the MIT campus, which you’d mistake for just another clump of biotech firms if you didn’t know that the undergrads with backpacks were a different breed than the city intellectuals, who always carry shoulder bags. I started over the bridge, which is called the Harvard Bridge even though it goes to MIT, and I stared at the graffitti on the sidewalk that the MIT frat boys repaint every year. “80 Smoots,” it said.
And then I had it.
I ran home, ran. I hadn’t been this excited in… I couldn’t remember. Is there any feeling that approximates the rush that you get when having a Great Idea? I don’t think so. At that moment I was Einstein and Plato, Edison and Galileo, all in one super-powerful entity. Drop an apple on my head, drop my head off the Leaning Tower of Pisa and use the energy created to power a light bulb. I could do anything. If I’d been in a Western I would have kicked open the door to my apartment, but I’m not in a Western and I like my door, so I opened it and ran to the phone, dialing Adrian’s number while hammering on Barry’s door.
“Uh, not now, Pete.”
“I don’t care what’s going on in the Fields of the Nibelung or whatever, Barry, this is important!”
“I can’t come out, Pete….I’m busy.”
“Screw that.” I twisted the knob and opened the door, revealing Barry, entwined with a brown-haired, very half-clothed and red-turning Gina.
“Whoops. Sorry,” I said with more equanimity than I felt. “When you get a chance can I talk to you? I need a favor.” Then I closed the door.
“Hello?” said Adrian’s voice, from way down in the depths of half-grog sleep.
“Ade, it’s me.”
“You know that thing that I was going to do tomorrow?”
“I’m going to do something a little different, but the same.”
And I told him what I needed him to do.
Barry and Gina came to the door, and I told them what I needed them to do. It was going to be perfect. I spent the rest of the night pawing through my clothes, throwing them on my bed, and then throwing them back in the drawers, unfolded. Eventually I passed out, fully dressed, at one in the morning.
In the middle of the night I sat bolt upright. What the hell had Gina been doing in Barry’s room?
The next day, the day before Thanksgiving, dawned perfectly. It was cold in the morning, but for some reason a freak high pressure system had pushed its way up from the South and Boston was supposed to bask in summerlike temperatures—mid-sixties during the day, and a forecast of high forties for the evening. It was almost too good to be true. I had the day off, which meant that the only thing I had to do was call up Emily and tell her where to meet me.
I hate that phone call. It’s kind of like the Yankees vs. the Dodgers in the fifties, except that the teams are I’m a Major Dork vs. Maybe She Really Likes Me and that the stakes are much higher than a few hundred thousand bucks and bragging rights for the off-season. Naturally, I stalled.
I cleaned the kitchen, the bathroom, my room, the hallway, organized the coat closet. In the process, I noticed that the Tron poster in the corner of the living room was getting a little bit frayed on the lower left corner. Tron had been one of the few things that Barry and I had been able to agree on as a mutual decoration; it would be a shame to let it decay in any way, so I hopped on a bus and went across the river to Poster Palace in Allston to find a replacement. Of course, they were out and I had to get a new one special-ordered, which involved a long discussion with the horn-rimmed glasses guy behind the counter on why I would want Tron in the first place.
“We’ve got tons from The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic,” said horn-rim. “Keanu’s much more of our generation, you know?”
I could have gone off on him about the importance of being in touch with your roots, that without Jeff Goldblum’s groundbreaking hacker appearance in Tron there would have been no Keanu, and that he’s a crappy actor who I wouldn’t have on my walls under any circumstances, no matter how good The Matrix was (and I’m willing to admit that it was pretty good). But I didn’t. There are certain battles that aren’t worth fighting, and I was pretty sure that horn-rim was the type of guy who listens to Beck albums and reads Ayn Rand–his entire life is full of last year’s ultra-hip—Pavement, shorts to mid-calf, lava lamps…what would be the point?
It was such a gorgeous day, when the air is clear for no particular reason, the temperature is low enough to wear your clothes that are cool, but you don’t need the winter stuff yet, and piles of leaves will blow in a mini tempest around your feet, following you up the street with a mind of their own. So I walked home, three miles across town, hitting two streets I’d never been on before. The walk was pleasant enough to make me take off my corduroy jacket and just wander in a t-shirt and my cargo pants. I made a mental note to check out Vampire Records, a new store in Cambridgeport that I’d never seen. I had a phone call to make.
I was energized. I was there. I had that feeling that basketball players talk about when they’ve just scored thirty or more. “The basket just seemed a lot bigger today,” they’ll say, and when asked to explain further, they just can’t. It was like that for me: I tore up the front stairs of my boring old apartment, ripped open the door, and stomped towards the phone. The “charging” light pulsed, as if to say “Here I am, big boy. You just use me.” When I held the handset, to my right ear because left hands are unlucky, Emily’s very numbers jumped out at me as I punched the keys 5 4 8 5 4 6 1. I took a deep breath.
And got an answering machine. It wasn’t really an answering machine: who uses those anymore? It was standard phone voicemail, the kind that everyone calls an answering machine: “Hi, you’ve reached Emily, for Emily press one, or, for Emily, press two.”
I chose none of the above, and hung up, breathing heavily, a drop of sweat careening down my left cheek. Then it hit me—the mortal fear of caller ID. An aside here: it seems to me that every invention of the phone company over the past fifteen years has been to ratchet up the level of Guy Phone Call Nervousness in the world. Think about it:
1) Answering Machines: Remember that horrible scene in Swingers where the guy calls the girl he’s met at a bar and ends up leaving twelve messages because the first one was cut off, and he gets more and more pathetic, knowing that each message makes him sound like more and more of a schlep? Everyone’s had that thought: What if that sounded stupid? I’d better call back and make sure she doesn’t think I’m a dork. Boom, instant stalker.
2) *69. Ouch. Not only has this destroyed the prank-call as an art-form, but what if you call and she answers and you lose your nerve? Your mouth gets dry, your voicebox locks up and before you know it you’ve been breathing into the phone for ten seconds. Hi, I’m your local axe-murderer, wanna hang out? You hang up, she calls back, all you can do is deny that you called, which both of you know is pure bullshit.
3) Caller ID. Even with the previous two, you could call and nobody would be there, and you could panic, hang up, and be okay. Nobody’s going to come home and hit *69 to find out if anyone called, and the answering machine won’t record if you hang up while the message is talking. But the caller ID light—that sucker is rough. The little light says “Hey, some poor sucker called you, you might as well know who it was so you can sit there and laugh to your roommates: ‘Hey guys, guess who thought they could call me today? That schmuck I was telling you about, the one who is even more of a loser than his roommate. Yeah, that guy who spends all of his time online—compared to the other guy, he’s a gold-medal winner at the X-games!’”
So there I was, screwed. If I didn’t call again and leave a message, she’d probably know I called and hung up, the absolute pinnacle of wussitude. Up the creek without a paddle, on the can without toilet paper, MC-ing without a turntable—throw out any cliché you want, it was me. Damn. I dialed again.
“Hi Emily, it’s Peter. Hope we’re still on for tonight. Cool. Um…I guess the best place to meet me is right at MIT, right near the Harvard Bridge. That’s the long one, not the Salt-and-Pepper. Cool? From where you are…uh….um. Well, you can walk from Kendall, or take the #1 bus from Central Square, I think. Um…talk to you later. Cool. Bye. Oh..shit. Um, at eight? Yeah. Bye.”
Bye. Why does everyone say that when they leave a message? It’s not like there’s a conversation going on, and Bye usually signifies a “nice talking with you, seeya later.”
I hung up for the second time, my brain on overdrive dominatrix mode: You idiot, what the hell were you saying? How many times can you say “cool” in one sentence? What is this, the mid-70s when saying that word was something innovative, a way to differentiate the knobs from the hipsters? And what’s with your voice, anyway? You sound like a hyperactive teenager, like Peter Brady singing that stupid “Time For Change” song on that episode where his voice changed and cracked every time he tried to belt out a note. you’re obviously a desperate loser with absolutely no prospects for excitement, not to mention the fact that you work in a coffee shop, for God’s sake. She’s never going to show up, and the next time she comes into Jon’s Place you’ll have to beg for the opportunity to give her a 10% discount, let alone buy her a cup of coffee or anything new. By the way, what’s Jenny up to, you think? She’s laughing at your memory because she and Adam probably came in here and tapped your phone so they could listen in on your pathetic weasel attempts to get with some girl who’s way out of your league. Hell, Emily’s the New York Yankees and you’re not even the Durham Bulls.
And stuff like that. I tried to tune the dominatrix out, but she’s pretty insistent. I decided to outdo her, putting on Springsteen’s Nebraska album while re-organizing the cupboard. Nebraska is pretty bleak, and I figured if I could get the dominatrix in my head listen to Bruce’s lyrics about the horrible conditions people face in godawful places like New Jersey, she’s shut up and realize that I’ve got it pretty good. Of course, it didn’t work, but I basked in lyric-fueled relativism: I may be a mushmouthed idiot, but at least I didn’t come back from the Korean war with a giant piece of steel in my butt and no job at the ironworks.
And then the phone rang. I was paralyzed for three rings, and then picked it up.
“Hey, it’s Adrian. How we doing?”
“Um. Good, I guess. You bought everything?”
“Save the receipt so I can pay you back.”
“Okay. Get excited, man. ”
He hung up, and another thought hit me, like a sledgehammer to the front of my head. I didn’t have call waiting. Most people do these days, but, due to various circumstances involving us originally having two lines before Barry got a cable modem and the idiocy of the billing people at the phone company, the phone line that we used had originally been the computer line, and call waiting was, as far as we could tell, permanently disabled, although sometimes it would three-way dial without any provocation whatsoever. It would be weird; you’d have dialed your credit card company and be putting in your numbers, and the phone line would take your card number as a phone number, and before you knew it you’d be talking to a dry cleaner in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I was in a bind; what if Emily had called while I was on the phone with Adrian, and she’d gotten a busy signal, decided that she had the wrong number for me (had she ever called me at home? I didn’t think so, and we weren’t in the phone book), and called the whole thing off because I was unreachable? Shit. I stewed.
I got to the point on the Harvard Bridge twenty minutes early, and spent part of it walking over to where Adrian was standing, maybe thirty Smoots across. He saw me and shooed me back with assurances that it was going to be okay, and no it wasn’t too cold, he was wearing a hat because he felt like he might be getting sick and didn’t want to aggravate anything.
So I waited. We’ve all waited that particular wait. I stood with my hands in my pockets, sometimes taking them out, then putting them back in again. I leaned against the railing of the bridge for a few minutes with my hands in my pockets, then stood up straight, shifting my weight off of one foot when I felt the little pinpricks that signalled that the leg was about to go to sleep. I wished that I smoked, not because my nerves were going off like a car alarm after a passing truck, but because smoking would give me something to do that wouldn’t involve leaning/standing/shifting on the corner of Memorial Drive and Massachusetts Avenue like a poster-boy for an anti-loitering campaign. I thought about my breath, which I couldn’t see. How cold did that make it? Was it warm enough? Would Emily be dressed warmly? The river was a long slice of black, winding its way amidsts the splashes of light from the abutting buildings. Once, traffic on the bridge and the road slowed to nothing, and I could hear the water lapping against the banks, sounding almost tranquil amidst the background noise of the city—a constant melange of distant horns and shouted dropped r sounds, clanking hellspawned garbage trucks, sirens, and the ever-present slight thrum of the thousands of walking feet. I wondered what the total noise of that was, if there was any way to calculate the decibel level that results from thousands of people walking at once, none in the same direction or with the same rhythm. It couldn’t be absolutely impossible, could it?
“Hey, Pete,” said Emily.
I didn’t jump all the way out of my skin. Just a few inches. I said hi, and she reached out for a hug, which I gave to her after hesitating for a second to decide which hug to give, the light reach-around tap or the strong friendly/half-sexual hug? I went with the first one, and she held on a little tighter than I did. Damn. Wrong signal on my part.
“So what are we doing?” she asked.
“Walking,” I said.
“Ah,” she said, and held out her right arm at an angle. I stared at it like an idiot for at least half a second, then got the picture and took her arm.
“I haven’t promenaded anyone since eighth grade mandatory P.E. squaredancing class,” I said.
“Is it so bad?” she said.
“Nah,” I said. “Without the canned music it’s almost bearable.”
She laughed at that and reminded me why I was walking across the Harvard Bridge on a weekday early evening. Emily was still about a half-inch taller than me, but that was all, because she’d worn flat shoes—Adidas sneakers, the black kind with fake leather and three white stripes. She’d put on a wool coat and had on jeans—either dark blue, or black, I couldn’t tell.
Adrian was waiting for us a third of the way down the bridge; he had a grin on his face that would have illuminated the dark side of the moon. “Here you go,” he said, holding out a large wicker basket; I didn’t want to let go of Emily’s arm, so I slung the basket under my right arm and continued to promenade with her on my left.
“Hey, Adrian,” said Emily.
He winked at her, and gave a “go ahead” motion.
She looked at me but didn’t ask any questions.
The view from the Harvard Bridge is one of the best in the city if you’re walking towards the Boston side of the river. The whole city is spread out in front of you—downtown is at about ten o’clock, a cluster of lights and midsized skyscrapers. The brightness from downtown illuminates the gilded dome of the State House on Beacon Hill, which is the last patch of serious light until you get to the Hancock building on the other side of the Common; the Hancock and the Prudential tower are all alone with no buildings close by. Fenway Park was dark, but we could still make out the light towers against the starry pincushion of the sky.
We reached the two-thirds mark on the bridge, not really talking at all, just taking in the view. Barry was waiting, swathed in the cloak that he used to wear to RPG night. It was almost impossible to make out his shape in the folds of the clothing. As we got close, he attempted to swirl the cloak; I guess he was trying to create some sort of Gandalf-ish impression. It didn’t work. In the dark, he looked more like a pudgy low-rent Dracula. I looked sideways at Emily. She was smiling.
“Here,” said Barry, voice low. He had two bottles in his hand. One was red wine—a Robert Mondavi that Adrian had recommended. The other was a brushed-aluminum Thermos that hopefully held a quart of spiced apple cider, heated up with the espresso wand at Jon’s Place.
I took the bottles from Barry and looked at him.
He looked back at me.
“Barry…” I said.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “Oops, I mean…um oh, sorry.”
‘It’s okay,” said Emily. “I’ve heard bad words before.”
“Good,” said Barry, breathing out hard. “I wouldn’t want to screw up Pete’s big night with my big mouth, you know. He’s a really good guy, Pete.”
“Barry…”I said, holding out my right hand.
“Hm? Oh, right.” He dug his right hand into the folds of his cloak and produced a flip-open corkscrew.
“Thanks,” I said.
“One more thing,” said Barry. He removed his cloak and held it out to me. He had been wearing a heavy coat under it the entire time, and he was sweating.
“It doubles as a blanket,” he said. “In case it gets too much colder.”
I grinned. “Thanks.”
He smiled back.
We walked the rest of the way across the bridge, taking the stairs down to the bike path and the small strip of grass that abuts the river. I snuck a glance over at Emily; she was looking around with a half-smile on her face, and she kept that smile
That mellow, contented feeling lasted until I got home four hours later and went to bed. It lasted through several different kinds of cheese and the entire thermos full of spiced apple cider, sandwiches from the gourmet deli in Beacon hill (the were really good, as they should have been for ten dollars apiece) and half of a fudge brownie packed chock-full of semisweet chocolate chips. It lasted all through the conversation, which touched on everything from my short and sweet office-worker career to her encyclopedic knowledge of everything Marilyn Monroe.
We walked back across the Harvard Bridge hand-in-hand, passing by another hand-in-hand couple and a homeless guy who mumbled something about change and a bus. I gave him the thirty-five cents from the emergency fund in my inner coat pocket, and Emily squeezed my hand. We walked all the way back up Massachusetts Avenue to Central Square, where the last of the evening revellers were leaving the bars and cursing at the 1 a.m. closing time. I stood next to her as she waved down a lit taxi, and gave her a goodnight kiss.
And yeah, it was a pretty good goodbye kiss, sort of like the one from Sixteen Candles where Molly Ringwald and Michael Schoeffling lean forward over the table and kiss, because that’s what we looked like, sitting cross-legged on a dark green cigarette-burned army blanket, leaning forward for the first time and kissing; I don’t care how big of a stud or a slut you are—if you’re sober and happy, the first time you kiss someone, a little light goes on inside you and doesn’t go away for at least a day.
I spent Thanksgiving in a daze. I had thought about going down to visit my parents in northern Virginia, but they didn’t want me flying down because of the possibility of terrorist attacks, and they didn’t want me taking the train because they were convinced that Amtrak would go out of business while I was somewhere in the vicinity of Newark, New Jersey, and they didn’t want me to rent a car and drive down because of the expense and the sheer dangerousness of the roads during the holiday season. I thought about taking a bus, but the total trip time would have been well over ten hours, so I decided to schedule myself a full day on Friday at Jon’s Place and just stick around for the holiday. So that’s what I did. Adrian was around—he never went home for any holiday—and the two of us had a Thanksgiving dinner of pho dac biet at a tiny Vietnamese noodle shop in Chinatown. It wasn’t remotely as sad as it sounds; the hostess had a warm smile, the restaurant was crowded, and the noodle soup was fantastic. It started to snow again as I walked back from a nearly empty subway car on that night, and I reached out with my tongue and caught one flake.
Some time passed. I worked about fifty hours a week, maybe more; the vacation season is always a tough one at the shop. Emily had called me on my second day back and left a message; she called me back the next day, and told me that there wasn’t a whole lot of time for her this week because of work things. I concurred, and we made tentative plans to have a drink together over the weekend. The whole conversation made me a little bit nervous, and I wasn’t sure why; I didn’t remember exactly what it was that Emily did for a living—I think she was a graphic designer, or perhaps an interior designer? We hadn’t really talked about work stuff because I’d learned my lesson; my job isn’t that exciting to most people, and I’d rather talk about books or music or politics or other things.
The health department showed up, right on time when it was least convenient. I was working with Jason, who had just come back from a trip to Philadephia, where he had met with one of his suppliers. He showed up to work five minutes early with a backpack full of sheets of acid and phenobarbitol that he had ordered from an online Thai pharmacy and had sent to General Delivery in Philly. I had opened up in the morning with MaryAnn, one of the students who worked part-time. Jason’s hyperactive exuberance was a welcome change from MaryAnn’s buxom silence.
“Pete, the man, the man, the man, the fucking man!” he said as he strode in the door, backpack hanging loose from one shoulder.
“Can I go?” said MaryAnn. Those were the first three words she’d spoken in two hours. Instead of asking customers what they wanted, she had just looked straight ahead and nodded when people finally spoke up.
“Yeah, woman, get you and your Andersons gone.” Said Jason, limbo-ing under the
“Andersons?” I said.
Jason watched MaryAnn head out the door, and nodded. “Sure. Pamela Anderson…Andersons. Get it?”
Jason dropped his backpack on the floor, and we got to work. He regaled me with tales of his two days in Philadelphia, where he had apparently come this close to getting the number of the fortysomething tour guide at the Liberty bell exhibition. He talked all the way through the first part of the lunch rush, machine-gunning words out of his mouth while microwaving quiches, spilling ice all over the floor, and popping minithins like candy. In other words, normal. The line was nearly out the door and we ran out of espresso beans, so I asked Jack Ramsey down to the storeroom to get some with the promise of a free cup of coffee if he could bring up a ten-pound bag.
That’s when the health inspector came in. She was a pudgy, severe-looking woman in an ill-fitting suit, her brown hair pulled back into a messy bun.
“Excuse me,” she said. “We’re with the health department. Can we have a minute of your time?”
“Not the best time,” I said. “Can you see the line?” I gestured to the twenty people waiting and our packed-full tables. “We’re kind of swamped.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of yellow paper with some printing on it. I glanced at it without really reading it and ground another filter’s worth of coffee beans.
“This paper is a write-up of a complaint,” she said. “One of your customers claimed to
witness unsanitary conditions in this establishment a couple of weeks ago, and we have a whole team in here to check it out. Now, you need to cooperate with us.”
I stopped grinding and looked at her. I suppose there a million interesting, suave things I could have said about her hair, her ridiculous clothes, her need to show up during our busiest time and hassle me with a complaint that was probably unfounded (it’s pretty easy to stay clean when you don’t actually cook anything), or note that there were sixty people in Jon’s Place, and all of them probably thought that she was really ugly.
I didn’t actually say anything like that, of course.
“What do you need me to do?” I said.
“Just let me and my team look everywhere,” she said. She smiled, a sight that would have scared Count Orlock. “We can’t be too careful, you know. Based on this accusation, we’re probably going to have to shut you down.”
It was pure hell. She called in four other people, two guys and two girls, all of whom would have fit in perfectly in one of those jingoistic old movies about the Nazis. They wouldn’t have been playing people on our side, either. If they had had been allowed, they probably would have worn jackboots. One of them marched right up to the table where Jack Ramsy (where was he, anyway? The basement wasn’t that big) had been playing bridge, swept his cards into an uneven pile, licked his finger, and drew it along the side of the table. The then held his finger up to his face and turned it this way and that, screwing up his face as he squinted.
“Hey,” I said. “You at the table. What are you doing?”
He looked over at me and turned up his mouth. “Looking for dust,” he said.
“Isn’t that kind of unsanitary?” I said.
He sighed, as if disappointed. “This table is okay,” he said. “I didn’t pick up anything.”
The line was still reaching out the door, and some of my customers were now standing outside in the cold waiting to be served. Jason was still hopped up, Jack Ramsey still hadn’t come up with my espresso, and I was furiously cleaning some dried milk off of the foaming wands before one of the inspectors made it back behind the counter.
“No,” I said. “You licking your finger and putting it on my table, where my customers eat and drink things. Here,” I tossed a damp rag over, right at his head. He dodged and and it landed on the table – possibly the best shot I’ve ever made. “Wipe it off, please.”
I bit the please off, and his mouth curled up again. This one looked not a little like the villain in the first Indiana Jones movie; I couldn’t see the palm of his right hand, though. When he brought the rag back to me I took another look. Alas, the hand was clean.
“Thanks,” I said, and smiled at him. He scowled.
It was hell. The head woman asked me where our storage was, so I left my long line of customers (and ten who were waiting on espresso drinks – where the hell was Jack Ramsey?) and led her down into the basement. Our basement has a low, six-foot ceiling, is lit by two bare bulbs, and otherwise looks exactly like you’d expect a six foot by nine foot coffeeshop basement to look: bags of coffee beans in shelves on the walls, dust, a bookshelf filled with extra jars of flavor syrup, and Jack Ramsey dead on the floor.
“What’s this?” said the inspector.
“My God,” I said. I jumped down the last two stairs and knellt next to Ramsey, who was sprawled out on the ground with his arms out to either side and his legs curled up to his left. There aren’t words to describe how I felt. I’d sent him down to pick up some espresso beans and he’d probably tripped and fallen on our steep stairs and broken his neck, or his back, or had a stroke. He was an old man. My mind started running around in circles. Did I know anything about him, other than he played Bridge at Jon’s Place every day, usually against a rotating cast of other old guys and the occasional curious ringer from outside his circle. He dressed neatly, never wearing a shirt without a collar, but his jacket was worn and patched and one time I’d noticed the heel coming off of one of his shoes. And now, he was lying on the messy floor of the basement of Jon’s Place. What would I say to his relatives? Who were his relatives? Where did he live?
“What’s wrong with him? Who is he?” asked the inspector.
“Jack Ramsey,” I said.
“Does he work here?”
“Hm,” she said. I looked over at her. She was writing on her sheet: non-employee in employee-only area.
“What’s that?” I said.
“It’s a violation for him to be here,” she said, looking right at me. “I’m writing you up for that. It will affect your score.”
I refrained from tearing her head off Mortal Kombat-style.
She didn’t do anything.
I leaned over Ramsey, took his hand in mine, and leaned over. His breath smelled like coffee.
Jack Ramsey was alive.
I went upstairs to get Jason, leaving the inspector down in the basement with the slumbering Ramsey. The other four inspectors were poking around like kids playing Sardines. One of them was going through our magazine pile.
“Call 911,” I said to Jason.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Did you leave that crazy ice-bitch down there?”
“Yeah, I said. “But…”
“Dude, my backpack’s down there!”
“Twenty sheets of acid, she works for the government…if she sees it, I’m screwed. Jail for, like, ever, man. What were you thinking?”
I took a deep breath. “Jason, Jack Ramsey is passed out downstairs.”
He turned white. “Oh my God. What if he overdosed on my acid?”
“We probably would have heard some screaming.”
Some color came back into his face. “Good point.”
“Call 911,” I said. “I’m going to go back down there. Can you handle this crowd?”
Amazingly, it looked like nobody had left the line, despite the lack of espresso drinks and the slow service of a solo Jason.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Those operators could probably tell that I’m all tweaked. Why don’t you call?”
I shrugged. “OK.”
As I was dialing 911, it occurred to me that I’d never dialed 911 before. Once, when I was a kid, one of my friends had dared me to do it as a prank call, but I’d chickened out before punching in the final 1. It was kind of surreal this time, because I kept on thinking about all of the awful things that are supposed to happen to you if you call 911 without having an actual emergency. Supposed Ramsey had just gotten tired and lain down to sleep, say? If that was the case, I was stil pretty sure that black suited 911 Cops would come through the door like Terminators, slap plastic handcuffs on my wrists and take me off to a lifetime of hard labor in an unidentifiable location.
“911 Emergency, how may I help you?”
“Uh…there’s a guy, and I think he fell or hit his head, or something…”
“OK, I’ll send an ambulance right away. 932 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, right?”
“How did you…”
“We have a database of all phone numbers in the area. Possible head injury. Don’t move him, or touch him unless he’s not breathing…is he breathing?”
“Then sit tight. We’ll be there in a few seconds.
She wasn’t kidding. One minute later the Cambridge fire department came blazing up to our door with two engines and an SUV, sirens screaming and lights flashing measles spots on all of the customers. The health inspectors all started scribbling like mad in their notebooks, and the customers looked outside and, to a person, went back to what they were doing.
The fireman was surprisingly short, and stocky. His yellow jacket was smudged with what I assume were old smoke stains. I directed him down to the basement, where the head health inspector was leaning against one of the walls, writing in her notebook.
“Who’s this?” said the fireman.
“Cambridge city health inspector,” she said. “I’m here in response to a call about some possible unsanitary conditions in this establishment, and we take such calls…”
“Right,” said the fireman. “You’re not important to me. Go upstairs.”
I liked him a lot.
“You found him?”
“Is there any other way to get out of here besides those stairs?”
I shook my head.
“Okay,” he said. Another man came down the stairs, holding a big case in front of him.”
“We’ll handle it from here,” the first fireman said. “It would be great if you could clear a path from the top of these steps to the outside; we’re going to put him on a stretcher eventually, and it would be good if we didn’t have to maneuver through all of those tables up there.”
And that was basically that. I went back upstairs with a bag of espresso beans under my arm and started to ask customers if they wouldn’t’ mind standing up while I moved their tables over. After the first one, everyone got the idea and moved their own tables. The health inspectors were gone. Apparently the lead inspector had taken the fireman to mean that they had to leave the whole establishment, which was fine with me. Hopefully the two departments would get into a squabble over territorial rights and completely forget about us. Jason and I started to work on our backlog—despite everything, the line was still going strong. Who says that caffeine isn’t an addictive drug? After a few more minutes, an ambulance showed up and a couple of EMTs made their way down the stairs. They came back up with Ramsey on a stretcher, then popped down a set of wheels and started to roll him out. Ramsey was still asleep, his face somehow managing to look strained through his slumber.
“How is he?” I said to the first fireman, who was the last to come up from the basement.
“Not sure,” he said. “He’s unconscious, but it doesn’t look like he slipped or fell or anything, so it’s pretty unlikely that he’s going to sue, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“No, I was just worried,” I said. “He’s a…well,a friend.”
Friend? Jack Ramsey couldn’t remember my name. He was caustic and indecent, and used to make really shocking comments about Jenny’s body to me in a loud voice. Sometimes he wore the same clothes for three days straight. He’d driven a few customers away by cheating at bridge (who cheats at bridge?). He was a curmudgeon, the living embodiment of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Perhaps “friend” was pushing it a bit.
“He seems like a tough old guy,” said the fireman. “He’ll probably be all right.”
When the firemen left, Quentin Donnelly walked in, fratboy smirk in full effect.
“Ah, Peter,” he said. “I’m going to refrain from asking my normal question, because I’m just here to say hi.”
“And Yasser Arafat is in Hebrew School right now,” I said. “Go away.”
“I think it’ll be you who’s going away,” said Donnelly. “I heard that our friends at the health department were over here to shut you down.”
“No, they left,” I said.
His smirk left his face. “What?”
“The fire department threw them out,” I said. It was techincally true.
Donnelly muttered something under his breath, one word that rhymed with “grit.”
“You can go, too,” I said. “There are childredn in this establishment, and we don’t appreciate obscenities.” I rejoiced inside. For once in my life, I had gotten off a zinger at the right time, instead of coming up with it fifteen minutes after it could have done any good. Donnelly turned red. He’d gained some weight since first coming in, and it was beginning to show in his face, giving him a slight resemblance to an angry Donald Trump.
We met up in at TeaLuxe in Harvard Square on Friday at about eight. TeaLuxe is one of the few establishments in Harvard Square that I actually like; they have several hundred specialty teas from all over the world, and they you can either walk up a metal spiral staircase to sit on the upper level, or hang out by the front window and watch the crowds go by. I was early by about ten minutes, so I sat on the upper level working my way through a volume of Jeffrey Archer short stories and steeping my tea. They give you a little white-sand hourglass to mark your steeping time. I had ordered Lapsang Souchong tea, which the menu said “comes from the Fujian province of China. Exotic and smoky.” After steeping it, it came out orange, and tasted kind of like what I imagined bark would taste like. I added three sugars.
“Hi, Pete.” Emily looked harassed and tired; there were dark circles under her eyes that I’d never seen before, and her hair was piled up on top of her head and held together with a pencil, a look I recognized from college all-nighters. She was breathing hard, as if she’d been running.
“Emily,” I said. I got up to give her a hug right as she was taking off her coat to sit down, and so we were forced to do a one-arm hug, more of a nonaffectionate guy hug than anything else.
“What are you drinking?” she asked.
“Lapsang Souchong. I don’t like it much,” I said. “It was kind of a shot in the dark.”
She picked up the menu. “It says here that it’s often appreciated by those who like good cigars and single-malt Scotch. I don’t think that’s you.”
I laughed. “No, I guess not.”
“I’m having green,” she said. “Simple, straight, to the point.”
“That’s good,” I said.
One of the kids from down behind the counter brought up Emily’s tea and turned over the hourglass. “When that’s done, it’s done,” said the kid.
“Thanks,” she said. She folded her hands on the table, looked down at them, then looked back up at me.
“So,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Busy,” she said. “Really busy. After a year of not doing anything, they laid off seven people in my department and I have to basically be the entire graphics team.”
“A lot of work?” I said.
“No, a lot of meetings,” she said. “Nobody ever actually did any real work; we’d drum up proposals and then rotate the meeting-going among the nine of us. Now, there’s only two people, and I spend nearly all day in meetings.”
She looked down at her hands again, and looked up. I thought about reaching over and taking her hands into my hands, the way that couples are supposed to do, a gesture of “I know how it is, I care. I know what you’re going through and if we get through it together we can go home and exchange backrubs. Not necessarily in that order.” I didn’t do that, though; Emily was definitely not giving off cup-my-hand vibes. She wasn’t all the way on the other end; not, say, frosty. But she definitely wasn’t acting warm, relaxed, friendly or at all happy to be sitting with the likes of me at Tealuxe on an evening in December when it had become dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.
“What’s up?” I said.
She didn’t say anything. Her tea hourglass finished its drizzle, and she reached into the little pot and took out the loose-leaf holder.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” she said.
“You. Me. I just….don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It’s just…I think…” She took a sip of tea, and looked down at the green liquid. “I don’t think we can see each other any more.”
“There’s just a lot going on, and I think that it would be a bad idea for us to rush into this relationship. Neither of us is going to go anywhere, and with my work and all that’s going on, I just don’t think it’s right to be doing this right now.”
I felt some of my breath push out, sounding like a sigh.
“Don’t do that,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like either of us have a whole lot of emotion put into this relationship right now. Let’s just leave it on good terms, okay?”
“So,” she said. “That’s cool, then.” She got up, putting on her coat. “I have to run back to work. I’ll see you at the coffeeshop sometime, okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Great.” She picked up her bag and made her way down the spiral staircase. The steps are really thin, and she was wearing shoes with low heels, and had to half-mince her way down. She had barely touched her tea. I sat and looked at it until it stopped steaming, then I gathered up my things, my Jeffrey Archer stories, and my coat, and walked on home.
I took the next Saturday to go record shopping; I wasn’t working until seven that evening, and it was, surprise, quite cold. There’s nothing like freezing your face off in the street and then wandering into a good used CD shop and feeling your skin go all prickly from the blast of the heater.
My first stop was CD Spins on Newbury Street. It’s a local chain, and the branch on Newbury is the first; they also have stores in Harvard Square and downtown, but the original is the best. It’s half-underground—if it were an apartment it’d be callled garden level—and the clerks are connoisseurs of the uber-hip, the kind of kids who wear t-shirts so ironic that they might actually be face value; it’s entirely possible that the mass of black dreads behind the counter actually might be into Hanson because of their songcraft. The store store has changed a bit since I moved to Boston; they’ve had to move some of the focus off of CDs and into semi-generic alternative culture, selling posters advertising old anti-marijiuana movies, blaxploitation flicks, and Russ Meyer breastfests.
The full-priced albums were laid out in normal racks that you look down on; I didn’t really look at those, instead going right to the red-dotted racks that indicate half-price or another mega-discount. They’re arranged on their sides, so you have to stand there with your head cocked one way until it hurts too much to continue. You’d be surprised what you can find there. I picked up three Beatles albums there once for six bucks—they were a bit scratched and missing both sides of the liner notes, so I had to get Barry to download and print the track listings so I would know what the songs are on Rubber Soul. I always wondered why that titled included the bit about the bird having flown—what does that mean, exactly?
Today, my luck wasn’t much good—I found the first Cardigans album, but it was six dollars on markdown, and my usual limit is five bucks per disc. I did find, after twenty minutes of looking, the first Uncle Tupelo album, No Depression, which I’d been looking for for a few years; it was seven dollars, but the length of my quest for it justified the price. You might ask why I don’t just download and burn using Barry’s computer. The long answer is that I like to shop. I like flipping through rack after rack of albums, cross-checking with the list (I have one for books and movies, as well) that I keep in my wallet.
A fraternity guy was in front of me in line. Fratboy, Dave-Matthews Band loving, woman-molesting, white-Nikes, khakis and a tie on football game days, finger-sign flashing, screaming at Schaefer/Olympia/Milwaukee’s Best-out-of-a-can driningr, baseball-hat of the South Carolina Gamecocks wearing, two-bootleg tapes-of-Phish-owning, hair cut shaggy so it curls up on the outside of the white hat like someone had squeezed an “m,” ratty t-shirt collection of old sports teams to hide how rich his parents are, fratboy. He was carrying a Matchbox Twenty Album.
A friend of mine who doesn’t figure in this story in any other way once told me something about Matchbox Twenty. “If I was walking down the street one day,” he said, “I would walk right up to that fucking lead singer, punch him right in the face, and then laugh my ass off as he fell to the ground with this nose spurting all over the place.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do know that I was completely traumatized in the summer of 1998 when their first single, the exquisitely awful song “Push,” was out, and you literally couldn’t leave the house without hearing that fat slob Rob Thomas’s voice whining about how he wanted to push you around, yeah I will, yeah I will. My feeling is, just shut up and do the pushing, all right? One day I was at a bar having a drink after a three day temp job by myself—it had been three days of copying one stack of documents to the other, and the only copy machine in the place was an old Canon model that only could do one sheet at a time, one per two or three seconds. Why they didn’t just send me to Kinkos, I never found out. Anyway, I was at this bar and it wasn’t too crowded, I was just having a quiet beer by myself, when all of a sudden the second Matchbox single came over the PA, a song called “3 a.m,” and a whole gaggle of chicks from someplace that must have been Alabama or Texas started singing along about how it was three a.m. and they must be lonely; they were sitting right next to me at the bar, and even though I’ve spent many nights at three a.m. wondering if indeed I am lonely, at that moment I wanted nothing more than to leave the bar and go home and be alone by myself at three a.m., because what’s worse, being alone in the middle of the night, or being forced to spend time in the middle of the night in the company of someone who completely sucks?
“I’m so psyched to listen to this,” said the guy in front of me to the girl he was with, an Abercrombie clone in bell-bottoms and a tiny backpack.
“Yeah,” said backpack-babe, “I just think that lead singer guy is so cool.”
“Completely,” he said. “I guess we all get lonely at three in the morning sometimes,” and then he gave her a little kiss. I made a vomiting motion, and the guy behind the counter grinned at me.
“God, sometimes I want to quit this job,” said the counter guy as I walked up.
“People like that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, that guy probably makes sixty thousand dollars a year and he chooses to spend his disposable income on Matchbox Fucking Twenty. Shit.” He shook his head, flinging his hair around.
“Couldn’t agree more,” I said.
“On the other hand,” he said, holding up my Tupelo disc, “this is some good stuff. I wish everyone who came in here bought things like this. Then I’d have something to talk about, you know?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer this, so I said “sure,” and paid for my CD and left without saying another word.
“Of course you saw a little bit of yourself in him,” said Adrian later that evening.
“Let’s tick off the similarities: One, you’re both snobs.”
“I’m not a snob,” I said.
“What was the last album in the Billboard top ten that you approved of?”
“Easy,” I said. “Nevermind.”
“Pete, that album came out ten years ago. Be serious.”
I thought. I thought some more. “Um….”
“My point exactly. You’re trapped in an early 1990s pre-industry consolidation music fantasy. Second question: what was the last television show you saw?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“Bingo. Normal people watch TV every now and then. You’ve got this puritanical thing about it. I bet the counter guy at the record store would have given the same answers that you gave me. That’s why you saw yourself in him.”
“No way. I don’t get depressed when I see a frat guy buying Matchbox Twenty.”
“No, but you get irritated when four guys in suits come in and order frappucinos—you practically drove them out the door the other day with your anti-Starbucks tirade.”
“Well, they deserved it.”
“No, they didn’t. You can’t savage people for not living up to your ideals of taste. Have you ever thought about mellowing out?”
“Not really,” I said. “Are you going to be mellow to what just walked in our door?”
I gestured towards the front, where Quentin Donnelly stood, looking warily around. It was obvious that he was sick of dealing with me, and wanted to leave and come back another time, when someone who wasn’t me was around. We’d caught him, though. He straightened his shoulders and walked up to the counter, almost mincing.
“Hi guys,” he said. He was still wearing a wool hat.
“You going for the grunge look?” asked Adrian. “Pretty retro-chic, man.”
“What?” Quentin looked confused.
Adrian pointed at his head.
“Oh, the hat. Right. Well, I only have a minute or two. I was just wondering…”
“If Jon was around,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Is he?”
“Fortunately, no,” said Adrian.
“Well, he should call me right away,” said Donnelly. “If he knows what’s good for him, that is.”
He turned around, kind of like a drum major pulling a military-syle about face, which would have been impressive if he hadn’t left his hat on the counter.
“Quentin,” I said. “Your hat.”
“Oh,” he said, stopping in mid-pompous-stride and turning around. “I’m serious,” he said. “Jon really needs to call us, or he’s going to…”
“What?” said Adrian. “Lose his life?”
“No,” said Quentin. “His livelihood. And yours, from the look of you two guys. After it all goes down, well, don’t think about calling me. We’ve got a great health plan, but you’ll never take part in it.”
He put on his hat with a flourish and walked out.
“Who was that dickhead?” piped Jack Ramsey.
“Apparently the guy who’s going to own us, if he has his way,” said Adrian. “Cocksucker.”
“Ade, you do, on occasion, fellate, right?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t make the phrase less of an insult to him.”
“And wasn’t someone just telling me to be more tolerant?”
“I rest my case.”
Adrian was annoyed for the rest of the shift. He grumbled, mumbled, and was generally twitchy. I wasn’t much better off. We closed up five minutes early, hustled everyone out, and made our separate ways home. I’m sure his thoughts were the same as mine. What was Quentin Donnelly talking about? Was Jon selling to Starbucks?
“Jon, are you selling to Starbucks?”
Adrian and I were behind the counter of Jon’s place; business was momentarily slow. Jon had called in from Thailand, as he did from time to time.
“No,” he said.
“What was this Quentin guy talking about, then?” I said. “It’s not like they can force you to sell, can they?”
“Not necessarily,” said Jon. “There is always a chance that the owner could sell.”
“Sell what?” I said.
“The building,” said Jon.
Adrian started laughing. “C’mon, Jon. Everyone knows that you own the building. How could they buy it from you?”
“Not exactly,” he said.
“You don’t own the building?” I said.
I could almost hear him shake his head over the international connection. He didn’t say anything for several seconds.
“No,” he said. “It’s owned by an old guy, a local guy. He bought it back in the ‘70s, when Central Square was full of smackheads and dust junkies. I visit him sometimes, when I get back into town. Maybe I should talk to this Donnelly, give him a call.”
“That would be difficult,” said Adrian.
“We’ve thrown away all of his business cards,” I said. “Neither of us have any clue what his phone number is.”
Jon laughed. “Okay. It’ll probably be nothing, anyway. Everything going all right, otherwise?”
“Yes,” we said together.
“OK,” he said. “My dive instructor is here. I’ll talk to you guys later.”
Christmas in Boston. Charles Kuralt once wrote that if he had time, in America he’d spend each month of the year–February in San Antonio, summer in San Francisco, autumn in Vermont, November in Louisiana, and December in New York City, because New York puts on its best face for the holidays.
Screw that. Give me Boston any day. I like New York at Christmas, but it’s just not cold enough. In Boston the air gives you a good bite when you open the outside door in the morning. You have to keep a chapstick in your coat pocket to ward off the dry outside air and the dessicated inside atmosphere caused by radiators. I always go down to the Common to watch the mayor light the lights of the big Christmas tree, Fanuel Hall Market is festooned with lights, tourists, and street performers chuffing out clouds of frozen breath as they work their numb fingers for the next card trick.
It’s a fun time. I did a lot of decorating, more than I usually do. Adrian and I stayed at work until four in the morning one night, festooning the place with green garlands, stars, and lights. I did the festooning, Adrian directed—he claimed that, as a gay man, he had the decorative gene. I didn’t argue; I know how bad my aesthetics are. And, of course, we started to serve hot spiced apple cider and Viennese cinnamon coffee. The smells of the gods. Things were good, except for when Emily didn’t call me back on the night of the 10th, or the 11th, or the 12th.