If my name were replaced with a number, in a prison or in a dystopian future world, the standard expression would be that I’d been reduced to that number, by forces seeking to deny my humanity. But I often think it would be an elevation to be assigned a distinct number. Most of us share our names with other people, albeit not usually people we’re likely to run into outside of a Google search. Our names brand us, they provide a basis for speculation about our age and origin, a reference point for how we’re to be classified and categorized. For some of us, the name helps, for others it doesn’t. I have a solid-sounding kind of name, so solid-sounding that some might suspect an attempt to hide something, but that aside, a name that probably works in my favour overall. But I resent my lack of control over these effects. I resent knowing that people detect some subliminal link between me and the other Kevin in the office, although at least he's a decent guy; between me and their second cousin; me and Kevin Spacey (I didn’t like that one even when he was merely a self-satisfied actor, obviously there’s no reason to like it any better now). I dislike that my name lands me in the middle of the alphabet, as if charged with being inconspicuous. If we all had numbers instead, you still couldn’t avoid similar echoes and implications – oh, you have three fours in your number, so do I, isn’t that weird – but I think their meaninglessness would be clearer to most of us, excepting the obsessive numerologists. The way I imagine it, we could perceive each other directly, without such a distorting filter. Once we got over the transition, I think it would be great for relationships, for individual well-being. I’m sure I’d be a little happier anyway.
But I know I’ll never evade my name, or anything attached to it. I can’t imagine faking my own death, or voluntarily dropping out or cutting back or pulling over. I’m going to be on this road until I’m forced off it, and sometimes I think I’ll be happy to accept that. But not from these people. They’re a typically-constituted group of regulators – one of them seeming alert and resourceful and potentially dangerous, the other five just there for support, most of them suggesting deficiencies of concentration, of awareness, of capacity, or all three. It’s a circular table – I’m at the south pole, the others are all bunched above the equator. One of them is saying: “Let’s go back to the email of June 26th. Back to this sentence you wrote about getting rich off this thing. Do you want me to read it to you again?” I shake my head. He says: “It doesn’t sound like a meaningless comment, as you dismissed it before. It sounds like a specific expression of an intent.”
I say: “But on the other hand, this whole conversation is about just under fifty thousand dollars in profits. No one would think that I regard fifty thousand dollars as getting rich. I mean, you know how much I make.”
“Fifty thousand dollars isn’t an insignificant amount of money,” says the questioner. “Many examples exist where someone crossed a line and took chances for a relatively small amount of money. Perhaps in some cases it was partly for the thrill of getting away with it. In some cases they aren’t as financially secure as they appear. There can be lots of reasons.”
“None of that applies to me,” I say. “I don’t obtain thrills from stock trades. That’s partly why I am as financially secure as I appear.”
Someone else says: “But you have friends who are less financially secure. Like the recipient of this email, Mr. Gardien. Mr. Gardien seems to have had plenty of motive to earn additional money, the quicker and easier the better.”
“You’d have to ask him,” I say. “We don’t really talk about money. It’s a topic that guys tend to avoid.”
“Except that in this email you are talking about money. It seems clear that it’s referring to previous conversations about Mr. Gardien’s financial problems and about a way to help him out, that is by helping him to make a quick profit on stock trades. How should we read it otherwise?”
“Just as, pardon my language, as bullshitting, throwing things around.”
“But you did meet with Mr. Gardien later that day. And he did place a trade in the company’s stock the following morning.”
“That’s just how things happen. You hang out with someone and you start thinking about them and what they do and if your mind goes a certain way then perhaps you act on it. It doesn’t mean we talked about anything. Frankly, he’s the last person I’d talk to about my business. He’s not that tuned in, if you want to know.”
“Maybe that’s why you wanted to do him a favour.”
“I don’t do that kind of favour. You guys already asked for my tax return. You might have seen how little I donate to charity.”
“That’s not why we asked for your return.”
“But it tells you something. Just like I’m telling you things.” Just like I can go on telling them things until it gets dark, except that at this time of year it won’t get dark until after eight o’clock, and most of these regulatory characters don’t like to work after five. Even now, just after three-thirty, I think I can see them calculating the time to wrap this up, to debrief and run for the train. I hardly ever get home before seven-thirty, so it doesn’t matter to me; I may as well do this as be sitting in my office, navigating the multiple impenetrabilities of being the chief accounting officer. I don’t have many conversations about actions and consequences, and the ones I have are too abstract for most people to understand. It would almost be comforting to be accused of something immediate and tangible, especially something motivated by reckless altruism, by kindness or by pity. I can’t remember the last time I acted for such reasons. Even when I do something apparently thoughtful, it’s invariably to provide myself an advantage. I imagine it’s the same with anyone and anything, taking into account the wide and subtle range of what might constitute advantages. With Gardien, I think the advantage I gained by tipping him off about our stock – which I did do, of course – was that I knew he’d be humiliated by it in one way or another, or in most of the obvious ways.
Someone says: “Expand on what you just said, about how you spend time with someone and perhaps that influences their mind. That could mean certain things were conveyed almost without words, for example with a nod or a wink.” I say: “I was just talking about presence and influence. I have a colleague who reminds me of a particular singer, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan specifically. I don’t mean he would seem to anyone like a double, but something about his expression and manner brings Fagen to my mind, if to no one else’s. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve listened to Steely Dan a bit more than I would have otherwise, because of this regular nudge.” A couple of them smile at this. I say, “I don’t know if you all know who I mean when I refer to Steely Dan. It’s not a topical reference exactly.”
“Reelin in the Years,” says one of the more junior participants, someone who’s barely spoken to this point, and who looks like he might regret it now. I say: “Yeah, that’s right. You shouldn’t stop at the greatest hits though, you should dig into the albums. I guess that’s true of any good band.” They all wait patiently. I say: “Anyway, I expect you could all look into your own lives and come up with similar examples. Or maybe you couldn’t because the connections and triggers are so deeply buried. Maybe there are things you’ve been doing your whole life without ever acknowledging why.”
“I’d like to stay focused if we can,” says the person in charge.
“Obviously I don’t know how his mind works. Jack Gardien’s mind. I’m only suggesting it might have been the kind of thing I just described. He sees me and starts thinking about me, what I do, one thing leads to another, the next day he makes a trade.”
“But it’s more specific than that. You’d already told him it was a good time to get rich off this thing.”
“I’ve always been a believer in the company I work for. I couldn’t even guess all the people who made money in it because of me. Not because I tipped them off to anything, just because of an enthusiasm and positivity that conveyed itself to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you guys will be doing the same. That’s only if your employee manual allows, of course.”
I think some of them would like me, if we were meeting under different circumstances. I think the one at the end would like me a lot, although it’s hard to tell anymore, now that I’m at the point where I keep meeting capable, assured women who could be my daughter, and not even just on the premise that I was having kids in my teens. I’m coming to think that age is the most intractable of divides – a man my age might forget in bed that his partner’s from a different race or religion, but not that she’s twenty years younger. The constant realization might be transporting or might be toxic, depending on his relative degree of preservation, on her relative energy and empathy. I think for me it would be fifty-fifty. Of course, I don’t want to think about this now, although it seems comforting that I am – if I felt myself to be in any sort of real trouble, I surely wouldn’t be thinking quite as vividly about fucking one of my accusers.
That’s not true of course – there’s always room for that kind of speculation. I try to remember the last time I was in a meeting room with no windows, with such a heavy atmosphere, heavy lighting. I fail to remember – it might have been decades ago. I would never hold a meeting in a room like this, not even if trying to wear someone down. Any meaningful progress requires the clarity of light and air. It’s a noisy room too, moaning through every pore, as if the heating and air conditioning were located in the credenza behind me, or maybe it’s that the staff’s collective despair at being stuck doing what they’re doing comes to rest here. There’s a broken chair in the corner; I speculate that someone was chained to it and fought his way free. I can read words on the white board, from a previous meeting inadequately scrubbed away. It seems to have been one of those generic gatherings about setting strategies and goals. I wonder how many people like me they need to bring down in a year to satisfy their targets. I wonder if they believe the stuff they said earlier about enforcing a level playing field for investors, or whether they’ve ever thought about it enough to know how deeply they believe it. I wonder how many extraneous things I can allow myself to wonder about during this kind of interview, or whether I’m capable of stopping myself.
The person in charge says: “We’re plainly not going to leave this meeting and invest in the company. Perhaps we can stay focused on the specific conversation with Mr. Gardien.”
“Except, as I said before, it was over a year ago. I probably wasn’t that focused on it even at the time. It’s hard to recall much of it now.”
“If you weren’t that focused, then maybe you said something that with hindsight you wouldn’t have intended to say.”
“I don’t think I said very much at all. You’ve interviewed him already. You know how talkative he is. I probably couldn’t have shut him up for long enough to tip him off, even if I wanted to.”
“That’s obviously not a serious answer. We might as well speculate that you gave him what he wanted in order to shut him up.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to shut him up. I wouldn’t meet with him if I didn’t mostly like him. I’m happy just to listen. I don’t see him very often anyway. It’s only been once or twice since the time we’re talking about.”
Three of them go for their notes, in apparent competition for who can catch me out first. The one at the end wins; she says: “He told us it was four times, and he provided the dates and locations from his calendar. It seems all but one of those may have been deleted from your calendar.”
“They were never on there,” I say, “if they happened at all. I don’t put all those social kinds of things on my calendar. I just write them on pieces of paper, or remember them, or forget them, or whatnot. I prefer to keep my calendar focused just on business.”
“We didn’t get that impression from reviewing your calendar. I don’t have it in front of me, but I’m sure it contained many social occasions. I remember references to a few plays and parties.”
“Those would have been business-related. I often get invited to the premieres at the Whiler theatre because our CFO is on the board and he passes the tickets on to me. Parties, receptions, these come up from time to time. But I was talking about casual get-togethers. Things where it doesn’t really matter if you remember to show up or not.”
“According to Mr. Gardien, you remembered to show up for all four get-togethers.”
“That was good of me. But I don’t remember them now. Does he claim I gave him tips on those occasions too?” No one responds; I take the silence as a no. “It doesn’t matter whether I met him or not then,” I say.
“It shows you have an ongoing relationship. And a fairly close one. I know I have people I count as very good friends, but see far less often than four times a year.”
“Yeah, but those things don’t correlate. Some people just have schedules and habits that are more in step with yours. Some people are better than others at keeping in touch.”
I’m trying to project a slightly melancholy sense of distance, as if I’m simultaneously working on several demanding projects in my head, and can’t really comprehend anything that’s going on here except as a pesky distraction from that activity. I don’t want to project fear of course, but then I don’t feel any. I remember a former colleague who was summoned here to explain why he signed his name on a prospectus that failed to mention a major ongoing lawsuit; he vomited before and after, and told me he literally shit his pants at one of the questions, just a little bit. I imagine he couldn’t have appeared more guilty if they had a video of him picking pockets. Even then, he ended up settling the case, giving up $20,000, accepting a reprimand and some short-term restrictions on what he could and couldn’t do. After that, his career picked up speed because people thought he was a battle-hardened badass. More often, people come in for interviews like this, and never hear another word about it. It’s not easy to prove violations of securities law. The only clear thing is that capital rushes on, the mightiest river in the world; no one remembers or cares that someone took an illegal piss into it upstream. The funny thing is that about twenty years ago, I seriously thought of applying for a job at this place. I think I thought it would be like being a cop. Now it seems more like being a garbageman, and with a truck that keeps breaking down.
I know they make a special effort to find cases of insider trading and stock tipping and, as the phrase goes, to make examples of them. They like to claim that the market should be a level playing field, and that when people receive advantages because of their positions and connections, it undermines confidence in this concept. This seems utterly naïve to me. Perhaps actual playing fields are perfectly level; if so they’re the only thing in life that is. Instead of trafficking in sentimental ideals, it seems to me they should be helping people see the stock market for the deranged cesspit that it is. But this isn’t the time to go into that. Instead, I say: “Look, I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic. Obviously I support the work you guys do. I don’t want to be adversarial about this – that’s why I came today without a lawyer. I understand the principle you’re defending. But there’s nothing to see here. Obviously I could have been more careful in that email, maybe I could have been more careful when I met him that night. But none of us operate like military installations, and even if we did, intruders would still get in, or our systems would still be hacked. That’s all it is. The idea that I passed inside information on to Jack Gardien and basically told him to buy our stock to make a quick profit just isn’t credible. And if he swore on a high-rise of bibles that it happened that way, it still wouldn’t be credible. Frankly, the more he says something happened, the less likely it is to be true, because he’s a person who remembers his lies and fantasies more clearly than he remembers anything else.”
I wonder what they all keep writing. It’s all being recorded, so there’s not much point trying to transcribe what I’m saying. But they’re probably transcribing it anyway; it’s easier than actually listening. No one speaks for a while, until the leader does. She says: “What do you mean, you could have been more careful when you met him that night?”
I say: “I said maybe I could have been. But maybe that’s not true. Like I said, I don’t remember the conversation, why would I? For all I know, I just said I was tired and there was a lot going on at work. Maybe he took a lucky guess that whatever I was working on would make the stock go up. You know, thinking about it now, that’s probably exactly what it was.”
“Except that this was a very large trade for him. As we’ve discussed, he financed it by going into debt. It certainly seems he had good reason for believing it would pay off.” I shrug. “He probably just decided it was all or nothing. He’s not the most rational person. That’s why he’s in the situation he’s in.”
It amuses me to paint Gardien as this pathetic, irrational loser who only gets by on scraps from someone else’s table. Actually he’s helped us out a lot over the years – making introductions, bringing in opportunities, taking on things no one else wanted to. We stopped giving him work because someone caught him looking at child pornography on his laptop, in our offices. Actually we only had one person’s word for it – for all I know, Gardien was actually looking at National Geographic – but we couldn’t take the chance. I know I didn’t share this with anyone outside the company, but word probably got around. He never mentions to me what happened, but I see his continuing preoccupation with it in his interactions with female servers, or in his references to women he says he’s “working on,” or fantasizing about working on. He wants me to think “hot” women are an all-consuming obsession for him, and he doesn’t mind if that exposes him to other kinds of allegations, which of course they do, but he’s apparently calculated that even if time’s up for the outdated leering masses, he can’t afford to let it be up for him. Usually I just stick to uh-huhs and other token signs of engagement, and I know he’d prefer a more full-blooded reaction, a greater show of affinity with or even jealousy at his supposed Hefnerism, but I don’t have those kinds of performance skills. Anyway, I’ve been giving him more than he deserves, because I’m certain he hasn’t slept with anyone for years, at least not without paying for it. It’s all in the past now because we’ll never spend time together again, not after I helped him out by tipping him off that it was a good time to buy our stock, and the little fucker ended up ratting me out about it.
“What do you mean,” someone asks, “that’s why he’s in the situation he’s in?”
I won’t cross the line of mentioning the child porn, at least not at this point, although I’d be happy if they found out about it from someone else. I say: “He had a good career for a while and then he messed up. You can ask around and find out for yourselves. At this point he’s desperate to get something going. I’m certain the anxiety affects his judgment. It certainly affects his credibility.”
“We’re not particularly interested in his overall history, nor in yours. Of course we’re aware of the issues you raise, that people remember things differently, or perceive things differently as they happen, but I don’t think we need to go back over decades in order to assess that.”
“Obviously I’m not telling you how to do your job,” I say. “But I think that’s not entirely true. What Gardien is now, it’s very much the culmination of what he’s been and done in the past.”
“You mean, in the same way that it is for any of us?”
“Well, more so for him. Most of us have some ability to reinvent ourselves periodically, to adapt to new situations and needs. I don’t think that facility’s as advanced in him.” This seems very funny to me, to suggest they might as well regard Gardien as something less than human, but they don’t take it that way. Everyone’s silent for a while. I refill my glass from the water jug. They’re all watching, so I’m glad my hand isn’t trembling. My phone’s on the table in front of me, in airplane mode. I check the time. It’s almost four – I’ve been here an hour and a half. When they set this up, they said it should only take an hour. I think most of them are ready to wrap it up. I try to remember what’s on my calendar for tomorrow; I consider picking up the phone and checking on it now. I don’t end up doing it. I think about the time when I was driving too fast and I braked too late and nearly hit that woman and her kid on the crosswalk. It was over thirty years ago, but there’s never a week I don’t think about it. I’m certain my front bumper touched the kid. The woman kept walking, barely even glancing in my direction, as if Death was always sniffing around her, and she didn’t want to encourage it further. I remember her as having the saddest face I ever saw, although I only saw it for a second or two, and I think I was seeing an alternate reality more clearly than the actual one - an alternate reality in which I’d killed two people, and I had alcohol in my blood, and I was going to jail, unless I killed myself to avoid it. I even saw the exact way in which I’d kill myself, by jumping into Lake Ontario. Ever since then, I regard the lake as if it held monsters. Every meeting like this, every occasion when I feel in potential jeopardy, seems to me an elaborated replay of that moment, an attempt by time and fate to close that miniscule distance between me and the kid, making a lifeless carcass out of him and a disgraced, despised monster out of me, wiping out everything I ever did or ever tried to do. Of course it’s a wretched thing to carry in my head, but on the other hand, I also know the past is the past, and that nothing came of it, and that therefore nothing will come of this – I feel the “therefore” is justified, that it’s basically a matter of mathematical equation, even if I can’t demonstrate how that actually works.
I remember another occasion when I was involved in breaking the securities laws – when we knew that our investment in Venezuela, our largest asset at the time, was probably going down the tubes, and we did the same thing as my crap-pants colleague, we issued a prospectus to raise money, without adequately disclosing what we knew. Cedric and I basically looked each other in the eye and acknowledged what we were doing and that it was wrong and that we might pay for it later, but that for now we needed to raise the money and this was what we had to do. The financing closed and we got the money and then a couple of months later we couldn’t keep our Venezuelan fuck-up under wraps any more, and we put out the news, heavy with spin about what we knew and when we knew it, and our stock price went down twenty per cent in a couple of days. We were certain the regulators would smell a financial rat and come after us, but we never heard anything. A few months after that, we got some good news from somewhere else and our stock went back up, and we stopped worrying. But during those few months, I would see two kids before me on that crosswalk, two deaths, perhaps even two suicides of atonement. Sometimes I would see four kids, or eight, or a limitless line of kids, their broken identities to be revealed to me in the future, at other particular low points in the poisonous, unprincipled life I should have forfeited. Sometimes I didn’t even think I was driving too fast, and that I had plenty of time to brake, but chose not to, because I knew I’d need this memory and all that I’d subsequently constructed on and around it.
“Is there anything else,” comes the question, “that you’d like to share with us today, any information you think might be useful, anything you would choose to voluntarily provide?” I wonder what they’d do if I told them about the woman and the kid and the kids. “No,” I say, “I think we’ve covered everything pretty well. I’m happy to come in again if you think of other questions, anything you missed.” The person in charge looks individually at all her colleagues, allowing them a last chance to speak up, chime in, unleash the interrogative missile to finally rip me open. No one has anything. “All right then Mr. Whitland,” she says, “thank you for coming in. We do appreciate your time today.” I decide to be ridiculously magnanimous. “We all rely on the work you do,” I say. “I may not enjoy this particular instance of it, but I realize that if meetings like this never took place, and that if the fear of them didn’t exist, then the shape of our markets would be very much worse than it is.” “Thank you again,” she says. Everyone stands up and then no one knows the protocol for who leaves first, so we all stand there looking dumb. The person in charge indicates I should go first; she shakes my hand at the door; the others follow suit, all chanting that they were pleased to meet me, some of them more compellingly than the others. One of them accompanies me to the elevator. I don’t get to see much of the place, just a few offices and work spaces, all also far removed from natural light. I see piles of yellow files and piles of red files, and just to make conversation, I ask: “So would this meeting most likely be recorded in a yellow file or in a red file? Or are there other colours as well?” The question obviously rattles him; perhaps he spontaneously imagines a future situation in which a watertight case against me collapses because my lawyer is able to dramatically reveal that at this early stage in the proceedings, I was mistreated by the colour coding. He says: “The files are used for lots of different things.” He stands at the elevator until the doors close on me.
I leave the building, cross the road to a parkette, sit on a bench. It’s funny, because just a few days before, I was wondering why anyone ever has the need or the desire to sit on a bench, assuming they’re not physically frail, or have any kind of agenda in life. I exempt people sitting to use the phone, or even people who are reading, although I’ve never encountered a piece of reading material that wasn’t most effectively consumed in relative peace and isolation, if you’re truly interested in consuming it. I think most people who read on benches do so because of desiring to be regarded as the kind of person who reads on a bench, and to be the recipient of whatever heightened interactions they imagine might flow from that, if fate is kind. Misguided as that seems, I still understand it better than people who just sit and stare. I’d respect someone who was applying the full depth of their senses to his or her surroundings – seeing and hearing and smelling and perhaps in some way I don’t understand even tasting and touching the ground and the sky and everything between the two with a passion and intensity I don’t possess; no doubt such a person would need to sit down constantly, because the force and majesty of the revelations would make it impossible to stand for very long. But the people I observe sitting on benches plainly aren’t doing that. I doubt they’re even composing shopping lists, or planning their TV viewing for the night, or recalling the great highpoints of their lives. I think in one way or another they’re hoping for obliteration, for a way of evading the tragedy of having to get up and move on. That’s what I feel in myself now.
I sit on the bench for over five minutes, an eternity really. Then I call Cedric. I haven’t told him the allegations are true; I’ve been insisting it’s all based on bullshit. I know he doesn’t believe me – I couldn’t respect him if he did – but for now he can afford to pretend he does. I tell him I don’t think it’s going anywhere. He says again that I should have taken a lawyer with me, no matter what I felt about it. I say: “Cedric, I promise you, I did fine, I just told the truth, no more no less.” He says: “When the fuck has that ever worked for anyone?” I give him a bit more colour on the meeting, or a bit more specificity on its absence of colour. He says again: “You should have taken a lawyer. They may be jerking around, but sometimes that’s all it takes to come. Of course, they jerk around so much they’ve got nothing left to come with, but once in a while they still force one out.” I don’t care for this kind of talk; I don’t see how it helps me to regard the securities commission’s enforcement branch as a penis, whether flaccid or not. We move on to other things; he updates me on a meeting I missed, asking me some questions that came up and that he couldn’t answer. People get to be chief financial officers in different ways. Some climb up there from the inside, by knowing more about the company’s finances and accounting and systems than anyone else does. Most of the time though, they come in as stars: established practitioners of financial wizardry, or of magnificent investor relations, or just as a friend of the CEO. Sometimes, that works, like a prefabricated roof that gets snugly lowered onto a building frame; sometimes it only stays in place for a while before being blown off, a big exit package tied to its shaky rafters. I’ve already worked under three CFOs at the company, so I’ve seen all the variations, survived them all, because whatever they thought of me personally, they could tell I knew more about the company’s financial statements than anyone else ever would, and would always deliver them on time, and that made up for everything else, because even if no one really gives a shit about a company’s financial statements in the normal run of things, they start caring when something goes wrong. I get along well with Cedric. He’ll never promote me - he doesn’t see me as someone who should be overly visible to the outside world, but rather as a creature of the dark, herding the other bats – but he gave me larger raises than I’d had before, and he’s honest about our relative strengths and capacities. I like it, but I also realize that to put it as he might put it if he were talking to someone else, he’s been subtly sawing off my balls.
So I’m giving him the answers to the questions and after a few minutes he says: “This is making my head hurt. You call them and take care of it. Don’t do it tonight though, go home early for once.” It’s already five o’clock, but he’s right, for me this would count as going home early, very early. I’m tired: from waking up at 5 am today; from spending most of the morning in my office thinking through possible questions and optimal responses, even memorizing several such responses down to the letter and the cadence, although I didn’t end up using anything I’d memorized; from withstanding those hungry eyes on me in the meeting room; simply from not collapsing. Lies are heavier than truths; anxieties weightier than certainties; they sap our energy like bandits tapping into fuel lines. But I don’t want to sleep, not for hours yet. If I go to sleep, I won’t be awake to tell myself how well I did, and then maybe when I wake up tomorrow, I won’t be sure. The whole point of getting through that meeting, the whole immediate point anyway, was to stay awake afterwards, and not a sluggish, mediocre awakingness either.
I reflect on how small my life has become. I have a job that’s bigger than most in its demands and compensation; I get on a plane roughly once a month, always in business class; I give speeches several times a year and I’m on two professional committees. Two years ago, the institute of accountants named me as a “Fellow” for my services, so that I now get to put “FCPA” after my name instead of “CPA” – I received over three hundred expressions of congratulation, if you count the people who clicked on hearts and thumbs and suchlike. Not long after that, someone from one of the accounting magazines called and said he wanted to interview a cross-section of “noteworthy accountants” on how they “find balance.” I asked him what he meant and he mentioned other people he’d talked to who ran marathons, or spent several weeks a year alone on the top of a mountain, or who practiced ventriloquism, or grew the country’s biggest tomatoes. Half the things he listed sounded like stunts perpetrated for the sole purpose of being well-positioned for such a lifestyle feature. I told him I had nothing, I couldn’t even pretend. He said maybe that would be interesting in itself, to include someone who was still looking for the right balance. I told him that wasn’t the point – I didn’t feel unbalanced, if that meant needing to bulk up some part of my life that had become malnourished. I said: “If you sit on one end of a seesaw and you’re so damn heavy it doesn’t leave the ground anymore, and the other end is sticking way up in the air where no one can get to it, then in effect it’s not a seesaw anymore, it’s just a weirdly designed chair. If you stay there long enough, you forget it was ever a machine that could do anything else.” He said: “Perhaps, but it’s not a very comfortable chair.” I said: “Well, if you get paid well enough for sitting there, you can afford to buy a cushion.”
I don’t know why people think balance is necessarily a virtue anyway. We don’t expect people to maintain a balance between petting dogs and eating them. The human spectrum of possibility is vast – you might think you’re fine-tuning your place within it, but it’s just like drifting in the middle of the ocean and kicking yourself a few feet to the east; maybe the waves carry you immediately back, maybe you still die. You might pick two spots and find balance in navigating back and forth between them, but the scope of that recurring journey is dwarfed by the untaken journeys to all the other unvisited or undreamed of spots, none of which would change anything anyway. Some people think I live a big life – in particular, they still regard airports with romantic idealism – but the effort of crossing great external distances requires abandoning what might otherwise be sustained back where you started. All is relinquishment, or sacrifice if you choose to view it that way.
It appears to me now that I’ve relinquished any ties with people who might otherwise be here to drink with me, to celebrate with me if I chose to frame it that way. Perhaps Eliza would come if she were available, not busy, but outside our scheduled times she’s never available, always busy. Just like an accountant, I speculate about constructing a spreadsheet of all the people I’ve plausibly called friends over years, to track how many dropped away due to my apathy, or to theirs, or to relationship stagnation following a change of location, or a marriage, and so on. The logistics of this exercise occupy me for quite a while, as I muse about the core definition of a past friend, the probability of discrepancies between my perceptions and theirs, the likelihood that I’ve forgotten many of the people who should be on the spreadsheet, and so forth. I wonder what would be an acceptable distribution of culpability; I wonder how many lost friends I would have chosen to have kept, especially if (say) their unsuitable and limiting marriages and entries into parenthood could have been undone. The truth is though, I’d only want them to have stuck around as vague, intermittent presences, like background extras, and then on my own terms. This would be another example of my grievous lack of balance.
By now I’ve been sitting on the bench for twenty minutes, surely for long enough to attract suspicions of vagrancy, if I wasn’t wearing such a good-looking suit. I decide to call Eliza, although she hardly ever picks up. This time she does. “I was about to call you,” she says, an obvious lie. “How did it go in there?” I spend a few minutes summarizing my impressions. I say: “It does make you feel vulnerable though, you realize how quickly you could lose everything, if all the forces turned against you.” I don’t know if I really felt that; I’m probably only saying it to get some sympathy. She says: “You mean like one of those actors who’ll never get another job because they went over the line with someone fifteen years ago.” I say: “Yeah, you could put it that way.” She says: “But then you have plenty of other actors who used to be sort of famous but now never get jobs either, just because the world left them behind. Most people fade away for one reason or another.” I say: “So you’re saying I should be cool with it, because if I’m not brought down for abetting insider trading, it’ll be for something else, maybe just because I can’t cut it anymore.” “You know,” she says, “it’s probably better to think that way. You’re probably one of the exceptions though. You’ll be one of those hunched-over veterans that everyone comes to as a guru, interpreting the big accounting books like they were faded parchments someone dug up in a cave.”
I say: “All I feel like interpreting tonight is the bottom of a glass. I was hoping maybe you’d join me.” She says: “If I’d been thinking, I would have tried to work it out, but it’s too late now. The show ends at ten thirty, as usual. Then I’m going over to Nora’s because you remember we switched things around last week. I can try to switch it back if you want though, she’ll understand. But by then you’ll probably be asleep anyway and it won’t matter.” I tell her it’s fine. She says she loves me; I respond similarly; we end the call. At this point it would be easy to say to myself that I should never have entered into a relationship with a polyamorous woman who already had a girlfriend. But even now I don’t really think that – overall, it’s only a half-commitment, no matter that she claims to feel it as a full one, concentrated into a tighter time and space. On the whole, I appreciate the lighter demands more than I care about the dilution of the benefits.
I scroll through my contacts, looking for ideas. I call Chris, one of the guys who reports to me, the one who rather reminds me of Donald Fagen. I haven’t told him what’s going on – he thinks I was at a dull committee meeting. He assumes I’m calling to check on a memo he’s been working on, and he launches into a long explanation of why he’s not further along. I’m not really listening, but I still detect a couple of technical problems in what he’s saying; I save them for later. I tell him not to worry about that, that I’m only calling to see if he’s up for a drink. “Jesus,” he says, “what’s up? You’re not quitting are you?” I say: “This is something people do, have a few beers after work. We may be accountants but we’re people too.” He says he’ll have to check with his wife because she’s been home all day with the kids and she gets mad at him if he even misses his regular train and takes the next one, fifteen minutes later. “But she’ll understand,” he says, “when your boss makes this kind of offer, you have to say yes. I’ll call you back.” Of course, I know Chris is married with two kids, although I don’t know their names. But to me it’s just data, like his height and weight; actually not even as interesting as his weight, because I eat sparsely and healthily myself, and the junk food he eats at his desk disgusts me, especially as he grows larger by the month, becoming more like a memory of a body than an actual one. I don’t understand what it is to give more of yourself to another person than you can retain for yourself. After enduring childhood and school and college and finally becoming some sort of viable adult, I don’t understand why you’d so quickly squander the resulting freedom by marrying and having children and then becoming one of the primary things they have to endure. I’m fifty now, and I still feel it’s too soon for that, if I wanted it at all. I guess it’s a measure of your participation in society, perhaps of your credibility within it, and I understand some people feel a need for it, but to me it’s one of the needs that marks us as animals, and so I don’t respect it, any more than I respect myself every time I take a shit. Of course, I have to keep that to myself, because people aren’t too objective about themselves, least of all about their kids.
I’ve met Chris’ wife a couple of times – I don’t remember her name now either. She’s a large, pale woman, with piercing eyes that you never want to look into; she has no sense of humour, only seeming happy talking about her children and her house and the difficulty of finding a parking space. I imagine him on the phone with her now, insisting he won’t be having a good time, that he’ll be indulging me, and it could be good for his career, and after all this hardly ever happens, and he deserves a break once in a while just like she does. Then, because I always try to be aware of all the possibilities, I imagine that she doesn’t care what he does, that she’ll just dump the kids on someone and hook up with someone else for the night, because in this passing fantasy of mine they’re swingers, and all the conformity is just an act. Maybe even the weight gain is a special effect.
I start walking toward the office. Rush hour already peaked while I was sitting, but it’s still busy with the big clear-out: the thousands who know little of the city except the route between the station and the office and the food court beneath it, and the time required to transition between those key points; sprinklings of tourists disrupting the flow by stopping to look at things and take pictures; higher-level types who are obviously transitioning between meetings rather than going home, and who mostly view the exodus as a mass admission of inferiority and failure; others heading to the bars and restaurants, largely distinguishable by their greater youth and beauty and by traveling in groups, often laughing louder than you suspect their conversation really warrants. It’s a mild June day, the kind of day that maximizes the street-level density. If it were any hotter, a lot of these people would make the journey underground instead, using the subterranean path system; in winter, virtually all of them would. I nearly always walk outside, unless I’m wearing the wrong shoes. I suppose the path system is good for the city – there’s enough commerce down there to displace several malls – but I feel about it the same way I did about that meeting room: light and space are fundamental to a sense of possibility, and to live much of your life underground is a comprehensive denial of that. A lot of information gets exchanged down there, mostly over low-quality lunches, but I miss out on it. It’s one of the reasons I have this reputation for being rather austere and distant. The other main reason is that, no matter how I behave, I’m the chief accounting officer, and anyone labeled as the chief accounting officer is going to be regarded as a somewhat stuffy, intimidating asshole, no matter the evidence to the contrary . You could fill that role with a piano-playing monkey and people would still say: Christ, another typically boring accountant. I don’t think it’s fair in my case, but I accept it, and the reputation does have its occasional uses.
I decide to listen to music, and stand in a doorway while I put in my earbuds. I go to Steely Dan, because I wasn’t lying about that before. I like the attitude; I like the aural shimmer and polish. I put on Black Cow – I’ve walked to that a hundred times, always wishing I had an opportunity to say to someone: Drink your big black cow and get out of here. Actually I did say it once to one of my staff at the end of a meeting; he just nodded and left and we never talked about it again. Chris calls right at that point in the song. “It’s all good,” he said. “I can meet anywhere, any time you want.” I haven’t been thinking about a place. “I don’t want to stand somewhere and have to yell,” I say. “But I don’t want to be in some abandoned relic of the 80s either. What’s a happy medium?” He doesn’t know. “What about that place on King, Pi?” I ask. He still doesn’t know. I say: “It used to be a meet market. I can even testify to that from personal experience. It’s still there, I walk past it often, but the crowds have moved on. As we’re not looking for the crowds, it might be fine.”
“I’d like to hear about the personal experience,” says Chris. “But yeah, it sounds great.” I have to give him directions. I tell him I’ll be there in five minutes; not to worry if he arrives later. “I’ll just drink alone,” I say, “like a sad middle-aged guy. I’m sure the performance will come very naturally.” I listen to Steely Dan for the rest of the way, and I even walk in the wrong direction for a few blocks to get in an extra couple of tracks: I often feel like doing this, but usually can’t spare myself the time. The music inside Pi is completely different of course – it’s bass-heavy and throbbing, an invitation of a kind I can’t decipher. Everything from floor to ceiling is either black or dark red, intended to connote high-end decadence. It’s a little busier than I expected, but there are lots of empty tables, lots of spaces between people. I duly see some middle-aged guys drinking alone, inevitably looking sad, whatever their real emotions. I sit close to the wall, where I can watch it all. The server is pleasant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she made a face as soon as her back’s turned. I order a beer, then I get lost in emails and lose track of time. Chris doesn’t turn up for half an hour; he’s apologetic, I tell him it doesn’t matter. I order a second beer; he gets the same kind. We talk about work – mostly about detailed accounting issues. We’re changing the way we account for our property leases because of a new rule and it’s taking a lot of time and money. He’s staring at the servers’ legs – they’re all wearing black short skirts and low-cut red tops. He says: “I like it here. I wish I’d been here at the time you were describing, when it was busy.”
“You didn’t really miss anything,” I say. “I mean, you’d have a lot of people trying to hook up, but the success ratio wasn’t ever that high, not for anyone I knew anyway. It’s always been a very time-consuming and inefficient way of trying to get anywhere, approaching people and talking to them. Maybe it’s easier now with the Tinder and the other apps. I’ve never even seen them, let alone gone on them. I suppose that makes me old school.”
He asks about me and Eliza, but I don’t ever reveal much about her, certainly not about the structure of our relationship. I tell him we’ve been together, in some sense, for three years but don’t live together. I tell him a bit about Rosalie – I did live with her, for eleven years. I ended it when I met Eliza; actually it was within days of meeting Eliza, after the first time we slept together. I’d slept with several other women during my years with Rosalie, and I might have liked one or two of them more than I liked her – I certainly found them more sexually exciting – but I knew they could never be at the centre of anything. With Eliza, I knew at once that I’d redefine myself in relation to her, and although I wasn’t sure it would be for the better, it just seemed inevitable, like an accounting exercise you have to go through because of a new rule. I still feel like that, but it’s not a feeling I’ve ever examined very deeply. Sometimes I think I should just sit in a chair in a dark room, or whatever it takes to feel properly isolated and focused, and force myself to think about the whole past and present and future and the meaning and the lack of meaning of me and Eliza, but it never happens, and would stand no chance of a meaningful outcome, unless the dark room collapsed in on me and ended everything. If it’s true that love is unequally distributed in any relationship, then I know I love her significantly more than she loves me, but still not as much as most other women would require or desire. I’d like to feel a more consuming love within myself, and to receive something comparable in return, but between personal incapacity and the demands of being a chief accounting officer for a company with lots of complicated accounting, I don’t feel either is plausible. It really doesn’t matter much – I’d like a greater love in the same way I’d like to visit Venice or to see more foreign movies: genuine enough ambitions, but not marked by real hunger, not likely to make it into my final voicing of regrets. The only hesitation is that I don’t think many people would believe I was sincere in this assessment, and so I keep questioning it myself, without ever fully knowing whether the questions are my own.
The major thing, though, is that I just like thinking about Eliza. I like her blue eyes and her messy straw hair and her rather square chin and how her face oscillates between playfulness and determination. If I were designing her, her breasts would be much bigger – I mean, they’d exist, basically – and her legs would be thinner, and she’d be a little shorter than me rather than a little taller. But then, if I were designing her, she’d probably exhibit every sign of having been designed by an accountant. When I think of her, every other kind of physical proportioning seems boringly conventional, or forced, or crass. It’s largely because of her confidence in herself – she couldn’t be so all-purpose certain if she didn’t know more than I know. I’ve never been too interested in understanding what it is that she knows, although I’ve perhaps paid a price for that, in cancellations and unexplained absences and times when she’s not available even though any other girlfriend in the world would be. But again, I don’t know how often I’ve truly cared about any of that. If I really wanted to, I expect I could get myself a girlfriend who would usually be there, and the idea seems dull and stifling, probably to the point of being intolerable.
Chris says: “Funny how I asked about the girlfriend you have now, and you ended up talking instead about the one you had before.” And that’s just about it – to talk or think about Eliza always ends up being about the act of talking or thinking about Eliza, or else about someone or something else altogether, which of course is just a roundabout way of talking or thinking about Eliza. I say: “Well, I just wasn’t cut out for a wife and children. She’s too good for me, basically. That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about her.” I ask him about his children, and the conversation moves safely away. We order more beers. I talk a bit about some of the other people on the team. Everyone loves the sense of unguarded access to the boss’s thoughts, especially thoughts on other people who might constitute competition. I’m careful not to give him anything too blunt or definitive. Time passes pretty easily. Pi doesn’t get any busier, but the composition changes: the people who look like they came straight from work leave, to be replaced by people who don’t look like they ever work, or not at any occupation I could identify anyway. We get some food along the way – I order a Caesar salad; he gets chicken wings and fries. We both regard the other’s meal with quiet disdain. The music gets a little louder, for no apparent reason; maybe it’s on a timer. I tell Chris I’m in no hurry to leave, but if he needs to take off, I’ll understand. We keep going. He’s staring at a woman in his eye-line; I go to the washroom before I need to, so I can see her for myself. I have the feeling she’d rather be at home watching TV, wearing something looser, not feeling the need to squirm. Perhaps Chris was actually staring at the guy she’s with, who looks rather like him, enough to kick off drunken mechanisms of identification and fantasy. I ask him about it when I get back and he denies he was staring at either of them, which isn’t a very satisfying answer to me. I say: “You can tell me your inner life if you like. I’m essentially like your priest. As long as you don’t probe too deep on the meaning of essentially.”
He says: “It’s a pretty conventional inner life. I don’t trust it anyway. You’ll laugh, but I think I believe the theory you hear a lot now, that we’re living in a computer simulation, or something comparable.” I don’t laugh; I say I’d like to hear more. He doesn’t have much more though, beyond the basic premise. He says: “What’s scary now is that the simulation could be breaking down. That’s why we’re getting irrational results, like Trump and Brexit. We might have reached a tipping point of sophistication, so that the program’s starting to collapse in on itself.” Through most of this, he’s still staring at one or both of the people he denies staring at. I say: “We might be reaching some kind of collapse, sure, but I think we got there all by ourselves.” I ask: “If the program’s wearing out, how come we don’t see more dramatic signs of it, like the sky suddenly turning black, or buildings disappearing?” He says: “You’re analogizing with the kind of computer programs we know about. But this is a program beyond our understanding, so we can’t tell what’s intended and what’s a malfunction.” I ask: “What’s the difference between this theory and believing in God? I mean, they both sound like big exercises in faith and in explaining away anything that doesn’t fit the theory.” He says: “God is all-powerful, but programmers aren’t. Every game behaves in ways its creators don’t entirely understand. So maybe one day we’ll figure out how to take over the program, or even to climb out of it.”
I decide at this point that Chris is finished, that I don’t want to work with someone who thinks this way. I could admire genuine faith, or the genuine complete absence of it, but this just sounds to me like a rejection of any responsibility to engage. Much as it’s impossible not to think of something that you were just ordered not to think of, it seems to me these ideas might cause him to psych himself into a malfunction. And I’m getting angry at his monitoring of the couple behind me, no matter that it amuses me to think I might be partly jealous. I raise it with him again. He says: “Honestly, I don’t know. If it’s true, it’s just my eyes, it’s not what I’m actually looking at and processing.” And I don’t like this either. I’m thinking: this guy probably aspires to have my job one day, and being the chief accounting officer certainly benefits from a certain amount of abstract thinking, but it also requires the constant sense of working toward an end result, and of mowing down all obstacles in the way of that, and of insisting on certainties even when you know there aren’t any. I’m thinking now that Chris’s recurring indecisiveness and failure to grasp nuances reflect an inadequate grasp of reality; an inability to determine something as straightforward as what it is that he’s looking at. It’s not easy just to fire someone if you’ve never laid the groundwork with Human Resources, but I resolve I’ll start on it tomorrow.
I’m sure my expression darkens as I make this decision, but not in a way he could possibly interpret. I ask: “What about your kids? If the simulation’s breaking down, aren’t you worried about what happens to them?” I immediately feel this is the wrong question, that I should have changed the subject. He says: “Yeah, I worry about them. But I’m also aware that they’re probably simulations too. It doesn’t make what they feel any less real to them though. The truth is, we just wanted to go through the experience of having kids. I’m sure there were many times in past centuries when people worried the good times wouldn’t be passed on down. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong.”
“It’s demographically necessary I suppose,” I say. “If everyone was like me, the population would be aging helplessly and society would collapse in on itself. Or at least the benevolent aspects of it would.”
“You must have thought about having them though,” he says. But it’s not true. Perhaps that’s partly because I was never attached to a woman who forced me to think about it. But some men have told me they felt their own paternal urges, even without anyone else’s specific intervention and influence; I never had that. I say: “Maybe I’m just selfish and self-gratifying. Almost anything can be either a limitation or as a strength. I’m not too interested in knowing why I put things in one category rather than another.” He says: “So you wouldn’t be a good candidate for therapy or meditation or anything spiritual.” “That’s exactly right,” I say. “I’m not interested in the origins of my problems, and I don’t expect to find a resolution to them. Fortunately, I don’t think they’re very large problems.” He says: “Well, the financial picture must be very different, when you only have to think about yourself.” He’s raised this with me several times, saying that even though his salary would sound pretty good to most people, he finds it hard to get by on it, implying the company should be responsible for offsetting his wife’s overspending. He says: “You don’t even drive, you’re not funding a second home, or blowing it all on extravagant vacations. I mean, do you actually even spend it? Or are you a big secret philanthropist?”
I say: “I give to charity, but nothing spectacular. You’re right about the other things. My hobbies are movies and music, if anything, but in the age of streaming those don’t cost much. Eliza doesn’t even like me to spend much money on her. I have a big condo, but I paid it off years ago. So as an accountant you can guess at the overall math.”
“So what are you going to do?” he asks, with real urgency, perhaps seeing me as a runaway train, laden down with useless cash, heading blindly into a wall. “I don’t have an answer to that,” I say. “The good thing about having some money is you can afford not to ask yourself various questions. Maybe that’s the best thing about it.” I don’t want to talk about this though. I’m thinking now about wrapping it up, even though I’m not ready to go home; he’s just getting too tedious and irritating. I’m about to start working towards that, but suddenly he’s on his phone. “Sorry,” he says to it, “I was wrapped up in conversation, I didn’t hear it ringing.” He goes outside, so I don’t hear the rest. I look at my own phone, but almost immediately stop looking at it. I shift in my seat to take another look at the woman that’s holding Chris’s attention, or some unacknowledged sub-layer of his attention. She’s young, but quite severe-looking, like someone who in thirty years from now will be a senior rainmaker for the Conservatives. She’s listening to the conversation at her table with no conviction at all. Maybe she’s the world’s worst undercover cop. I take in the rest of the Pi scene, but I don’t see anyone or anything that could occupy my thoughts for more than a minute; inexperienced and underdressed vivaciousness doesn’t capture my imagination any more. Chris comes back flustered, like when I’ve given him something to do at work and he doesn’t get it. “Sorry boss,” he says, “I need to go.” He’s already putting on his jacket, retrieving his briefcase from the floor. “My wife’s freaked out because my daughter has a temperature. It’s probably nothing, but she gets scared.” I can’t imagine how he’ll help to calm her down, but I have no reason to object. “All right,” I say, as if entirely sharing in the urgency, if not about to surpass it. “Just go, don’t worry about the bill or about anything, take a cab and don’t worry about the expense criteria, we’ll cover it, just go.” He nods and babbles something, then he’s gone. I speculate on the odds that his wife just made the whole thing up to drag him home. The server sees him running out; she comes over. “Is he all right?” she asks. I say: “He remembered he was about to turn back into a pumpkin. I know that usually happens at midnight, but he’s married with kids, so they rescheduled it to several hours earlier.”
“Did he leave behind a glass slipper?” she asks. I say: “No, but he did leave a glass eye. It rolled that way somewhere. The cleaner will probably find it.” She says: “We can’t give it back to him unless we know it fits him personally.” I say: “Does he turn into a frog if it doesn’t fit? We went as far as I can go with this story.” “I don’t know either,” she says. “Was that Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, I forget.” I tell her it had to be Cinderella, because the Sleeping Beauty was asleep through everything we were talking about. I add: “I was going to wrap it up, but you’ve given me lots to think about, so I’ll have another beer.” She says: “You’re going to sit alone, drink your beer and think of fairy tales.” I say: “You know they all spring from our dark subconscious. Thinking about fairy tales can turn into thinking about a lot of dark stuff.” She says: “That’s not the mood we’re trying to create here, but you’re the customer.”
When she brings the beer, she says: “Seriously though, was your friend OK? He seemed really freaked out about something.” I say: “His wife wanted him home, something about one of the kids having a temperature. I don’t know that it’s really serious.” She says: “But you don’t know that it isn’t. I’ve run out of here a few times because my husband called about the kids. A couple of times it was nothing, but once we ended up going to the emergency room. I mean, kids are fragile.” I don’t have a response to that, so she moves on. It’s almost nine o’clock now. I’m thinking I probably got what I wanted out of him; by the time I get home, I’ll be ready to fall asleep, so there’ll be nothing else to think about for this evening. I scroll through my phone. People would be surprised at how many accounting-related questions and demands can crop up after hours, although that’s partly because we have investments on the west coast, and in Europe, and in Hong Kong, and we receive a regular flow of financial information from all those places, and then my team here in Toronto oversees how it’s all put together. The company invests mostly in real estate, or in services relating to managing real estate, but we’re also starting now to get into the marijuana industry, because it’ll be legalized for personal use soon here in Canada, and it’s gradually being legalized across the US, and they estimate potential annual revenues could be in the hundreds of billions, although I personally think that depends on unrealistic estimates of how many people will abandon their existing shadowy supply lines, or will decide to become professional stoners now it’s all out in the open. Anyway, marijuana gives us a whole big baggie of new accounting problems – for example because we now own greenhouses full of growing plants, and we have to come up with a way of valuing those plants while they’re still in there swooning under the lights, so we can show them on our balance sheet. A few years ago, to have been the recipient of so many emails containing such large marijuana-related numbers might have been a red flag for the drug cops and their secret surveillance techniques, but now it’s just the new front line of commerce.
So I have emails on that, and then problems come out of Hong Kong almost on a daily basis, just because the people we have there taking care of things aren’t that good, and then several of our properties in Europe are under-performing and might have to be written down, and the debates over that are endless, and we have our own problems here in head office, because of rule changes, and because we installed a new system that doesn’t work as well as we thought it would, and because two of my team are on maternity leave, which I don’t particularly like on its own terms, and I like even less when I envisage a near future where they’re back at work but then regularly running out of meetings because a kid lost its favourite toy and daddy can’t get it to stop crying. And I’m going through all this and thinking: what’s the point? What did I mean when I talked about money giving you the ability not to ask certain questions? Shouldn’t I be aspiring to ask more demanding questions, and then to be able to better afford the answers to them, if they’re the kind of answers that carry a big price tag? I think to myself that maybe I’ll work this out right now, here at this table. So I put my phone away, and I shift my position so I’m facing the wall, and I close my eyes and try to let myself fall into the future, or to rise up into it, I can’t decide which, but I try to clear my mind and be susceptible to all influences. I try to enter the soul of the music and to absorb it so it becomes a second heartbeat; I try to coax the beery heaviness of my thoughts into becoming an alternative clarity. If anyone’s watching me, I suppose I just look like a lonely old drunk who’s falling asleep, but I don’t expect to be watched, and I don’t need to be understood, because I think it’s starting to work, that I’m starting to sense a future I didn’t previously know about, lying behind a door I hadn’t previously noticed, or perhaps behind another door behind that one. I’m starting to sense it, but only the fact of its presence; I can’t yet detect any of its contours or textures; I don’t know if it’s familiar or alien. I keep trying, staring into my personal darkness, into a space richer and fuller than the crassness I’ll be returned to when I open my eyes, if I ever open them, if I need to open them to enter the future that’s now so imminent and tangible.
Someone touches my arm. I open my eyes. It’s the woman that Chris was staring at, that I wouldn’t have been staring at if I’d been in his seat. She says: “I wondered if you needed some help. It doesn’t look like you do though.” I say: “Oh, thanks. No, I was just thinking actually. I know it probably looked strange. It was very thoughtful of you to check on me.” She says: “It was partly because I noticed the other person leaving very quickly, as if there was some kind of emergency, and then you were by yourself for a while, and then you looked as if there was another kind of emergency.” She talks very firmly and rather gratingly; it’s a voice to go with her face, which at close range looks even sharper and potentially intimidating. I feel though that she’s softer and warmer than she appears, and that perhaps she often laments that she makes it too hard for people to notice. I say: “Yeah, he left because of some kind of family thing, his daughter had a temperature. I don’t have children so it’s hard for me to identify.” “I know what you mean,” she says, “I don’t have them either.” I say: “And then I decided, in this place of all places, that since I so seldom spend time alone just thinking, that I would do it here.”
“And now I’ve spoiled it,” she says, although she doesn’t sound very contrite. “It just shows we’re not meant to think big things, the universe will always find a way to stop you.” I say: “No, I don’t think there’s a universe that’s plotting against us. That’s the kind of thing my departed friend believes.” She looks at me quizzically. I try to summarize his simulated reality theory; she listens very carefully, nodding as if encouraging a nervous subordinate. “I’ve heard things like that before,” she says. “But I think the world is real all right. I think it’s much more real than we think it is.” I doubt that makes any sense. I say: “Anyway, I’ve kept you away from your table for too long.” She says: “No,” he left, “I asked him to leave. It was a lousy date. It was over after about five minutes and then it just kept staggering on like one of the walking dead. Can I sit with you for a while?” I only notice then that she’s already placed her drink on the table. She sits and continues: “It was a second date. The first one was a bit uncomfortable but I thought he had potential so we set up another one. But this time it was all bad. Mainly because he was just so negative about everything, his job, his family, the world. I kept thinking, what’s wrong with you, you’re in this great place on a date with a beautiful girl and you’re not getting any of it.” I don’t react to the self-assessment; it seems to me a little generous. She says: “In the end I just asked him to go. He left and he didn’t even offer to pay half. On our first date he insisted on splitting the bill. I know a lot of women are OK with that, but I think the guy should pay on the first date, what do you think?” I say: “I don’t know if there’s a rule, but if it were me I would pay.” She says: “If it were you, you said that as if it never is you. Don’t you go on dates? I don’t think you’re married somehow.” I tell her: “I have a girlfriend, I guess you’d call her, but we don’t live together, it’s not exclusive. I could go on dates if I felt like it or had the energy or whatever. I haven’t done it for a long time though.”
She says: “Well, I date a lot. You think that’s sad?” I don’t really answer. She says: “It’s probably pretty sad. Guess how old I am.” I think she’s thirty-five, so I say “twenty-nine.” She looks genuinely pleased, like this is already more than she got from the aborted date. “I’m thirty-one,” she says. “I don’t know if I even want a partner, it doesn’t feel like I do, but I keep going on all these dates, so I must. Maybe I’m just addicted to the dates. What do you think?” I ask: “How often do the dates go anywhere good?” She says: “I have a rule I don’t sleep with anyone until we’ve been on at least three dates. It’s a very strict rule. I break it all the time though. Especially if I drink too much.” I have the feeling that might only take one or two drinks; she certainly seems excessively liberated at this moment. She says: “You can ask me anything, I don’t mind. You’d probably ask pretty good questions that I wouldn’t mind answering. I don’t think you’d want to answer all my questions, but that’s OK.” I ask: “When was your last proper relationship?” She says: “As in sleeping with someone say more than ten times? I don’t know, a long time ago. Maybe never, I don’t know.”
I ask her what she does for a living; she says she’s a strategist – corporate, political, not-for-profit. This doesn’t seem very plausible, but maybe she just assists the actual strategists. I’ve had to deal with strategists a few times – boards or senior management bring them in when they’re out of ideas. The strategists seldom think of anything that hadn’t already been considered, but they provide cover for the people who hired them, especially if things go wrong later. She doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it, and she doesn’t think to ask me what I do. She goes back to talking about her dating habits. She asks me: “What do you think is the point at which you become promiscuous, statistically speaking?” I say: “Maybe when you can’t remember everyone you had in the past year. Or if that sounds too easy, in the past month.” She says: “So whether or not you’re promiscuous might depend on how good your memory is.” I say: “If your memory’s that bad, you won’t remember the inappropriate labels that people put on you anyway.” She says: “I didn’t say anyone was calling me promiscuous, I was just asking a hypothetical question.” I say: “I wouldn’t even use it as a pejorative term. It’s just a thing a person can be. Like being tall or being short.” Then the conversation gets silly over her inability to pronounce “pejorative.”
A different server comes over and asks her if she wants to start over again. She laughs about that too. She says to me: “You just want to be alone now right?” I guess a few minutes ago I was thinking that way, but now I think I’m committed to following this through a bit more. Basically, if you’re an unmarried man (and never mind how big an asterix should be attached to that) in his early fifties, and a younger woman sits down and almost immediately starts musing about her relative promiscuity, you have to stick with it, if only for anthropological purposes. I’m not someone who tries to impress himself on younger women, and I don’t feel too comfortable with my contemporaries who do. It’s not just Gardien; I’m thinking for example of Ken, who worked with me some twenty years ago and whom I still meet for drinks a few times a year when he’s in town. Ken always wants to go to some new “cutting-edge” place (although to me his use of that term undermines the whole premise, belonging to a vanished age when exciting new prospects had to be sliced open rather than swiped or clicked on) – he’s always researched this in advance and narrowed it down to two or three suggestions, from which I then pick whichever one sounds like the least obnoxious. He always makes a great play of memorizing the name of the server (unless the server is male, in which case he usually suggests moving on to the next place on the list) and using it whenever she comes by, although he often gets it wrong; he asks her about her favourite music, or her favourite new apps, and then tries to pretend he knows what she’s talking about. If she feigns any kind of receptiveness to all this, he’ll push to get some contact info, or suggest she might meet him some other time. As far as I know, none of this has ever gone anywhere. It’s not that he’s unattractive or threatening; he just doesn’t see that the bridge between him and these younger women is little more than powder, incapable of being traversed. Anyway, on the rare occasions he gets a phone number, he subsequently thinks better of doing anything with it, or else he forgets. I seldom contribute much to this – sometimes he berates me for being an inadequate “wing man” – although it’s possible I have the opposite problem to his, that I don’t see crossings and pathways that could plausibly bear my weight. I usually tell him I just don’t see the point, then of course he says the interaction itself is at least part of the point. Maybe I’m just more aware of the age and power imbalance than he is; or put another way, less aware of it, if you see an age and power imbalance as an exploitable resource.
I don’t think I need worry about that here. If she’s talking to me now, it’s all because of her initiative. I can’t even be accused of exercising whatever subtle coercion might lie in simply looking at her, as Chris was doing. As long as I remain relatively passive and resist being the first one to suggest anything, I’m exempt from all the usual criticisms. So I say: “If you’re suggesting another drink, I’d be happy to go along with you.” She says to the server: “He didn’t put that very enthusiastically, but I think it was a yes. I’ll have another Chardonnay.” I order another beer. After the server leaves, she says: “I don’t think you know how to behave with me. It’s not just you, I have that effect on a lot of guys. I think it’s because I’m an exceptional woman. Don’t you agree?”
I say: “It’s a big burden to be exceptional.” She loses herself in her phone for a while. She says: “I’m sending a message to this other guy to say I won’t be able to meet him. Not that I was ever definitely meeting him. It was just a possibility.” She has the air though of someone who might bludgeon others into offering possibilities; perhaps that’s her most accomplished application of strategy. She’s plainly doing much more than messaging a single individual, so much that I almost decide to close my eyes again. Just before I do, she says: “I don’t know if he even remembered that we might have been meeting. There’s always too much to remember. You must forget meetings all the time.” She then gets me to talk about my work for a while, but rapidly tires of it. “It’s funny that you’re an accountant though,” she says. “You know accountants have a reputation for being boring.” I say I’m aware of that. “Your friend looked more boring than you do,” she says. I ask her if she was aware of him staring at her; she likes the question but says she wasn’t aware of him, except as a general uninteresting presence who became semi-interesting only by suddenly departing. “Some people have really dull eyes,” she says. “They don’t see you that clearly, so they have to look harder, but their eyes don’t have much impact, so you probably don’t notice.” I question whether she could even see Chris’s eyes that clearly. She says: “If they were worth seeing, I would have seen them.”
I tell her he’s not really a friend, that he works for me. I say: “And maybe not for long, I’m thinking of firing him.” She likes the sound of that – I suppose it’s a core piece of the strategist’s arsenal, to advocate lay-offs and firings. “Then he’ll already be at home whenever his wife calls him,” she says. I can tell I’m reaching my alcohol limit – her features are starting to soften, I feel the possibility of entering into an enclosed space with her. This needs to become one thing or another, I don’t really even mind which. I go to the washroom again. I enter one of the stalls and sit there, just to sit alone. I’m thinking I don’t have what I need to take this much further. For years now my sex drive has almost exactly corresponded to what’s available; I don’t have much in the way of leftover compulsion or desire. Sometimes I actually imagine it’s all over for me and I’m on the verge of tipping into content abstention. Those thoughts can’t live for long when Eliza’s around, but she might be the exception that proves the rule, not that I know what that could really mean in this context. I don’t want to find myself in some depressing scene of under-performance and grating reassurance. I don’t know why I’m even thinking in these terms, because I don’t think I want to have sex with this woman, or to do anything at all with her really, but I have even less desire to turn my back on the possibility and to go home alone. It wouldn’t be succumbing to temptation, or anything you could express in such terms; it would just be following the logic of a route, as plainly as not trying to leave a highway between off-ramps. I’m not satisfied with this conclusion though, and I sit there for several minutes to see if it changes. Then as I’m about to leave the stall, two guys come in, all but yelling as they stand and piss, as if needing to make themselves heard over waterfalls. They’re laughing over how some friend of theirs, called Mike or Mickey, apparently bungled a “fucking sure thing” by being too drunk and passing out at a key moment, waking up hours later, abandoned and without his pants. I suspect it’s an incident from years ago that gets revived on a regular basis, always yielding new reasons for celebration. I don’t want to see them and I certainly don’t want to be addressed by them, so I wait until they’re gone, but it takes a long time because one of the guys dribbles on his pants, and that opens up a whole new round of raucous logistics. I wash my hands and return to the table. She’s not there, but I don’t immediately assume she’s gone – I imagine she’s also in the washroom, or outside smoking or on the phone. I sit and wait for ten minutes, then the server comes by and I ask her about it, but she didn’t see what happened. I go to the woman standing up front; she listens to my description and says, “Yes, I think I saw her leave.” I ask: “Was there anything notable about the way she left, you know, did she say anything, did she look like it was an emergency, anything like that.” She says there was nothing notable, not that she noted anyway.
I wonder then if I was in the washroom for much longer than I realized, for so long that she’d be justified in suspecting I was staying in there to avoid her, unless I’d been taken ill or died, in which case she wouldn’t want any role in the subsequent hubbub. It seems possible to me she’ll come back, so I linger over what’s left of my beer. After that I accept reality and settle the tab. I suppose I ought to be grateful that the vexing possibilities closed themselves down, but it’s outweighed by shame, that perhaps she was just an impulsive woman who found a way to amuse herself for a few minutes, with no thoughts of anything beyond that, until perhaps she realized what was in my mind, and felt she had to make a getaway. Or maybe Chris’s wife called to summon her away as well.
I stand outside for a while, as a smoker would. Someone even asks me for a light, but I don’t have one. It’s almost ten-thirty now; Eliza will be free soon. Perhaps she’ll call, to say she thinks she should be with me tonight rather than with Nora; or perhaps she’ll just go straight to my place without calling, and then she’ll be irritated if I’m not there. But it’s not very likely, as she’d expect me to be asleep, and not likely to be lively or stimulating if suddenly woken up. I don’t understand my reluctance to go home, and I don’t remember feeling anything quite like it before. I don’t need any more alcohol; I don’t expect anything else to happen, or even want it to. I move to stand somewhere else, near the entrance to one of the towers. A janitor comes out for a smoke break, joining a security guard on the same mission. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they’re nodding as if over a grimly funny secret denied to the suckers who work there during the day. A couple of guys in suits come out and head for a cab; maybe they’ve worked all this time, maybe they just came back to pick up their briefcases after the same kind of night I had. You can never really tell who’s truly important and occupied and who’s just along for the ride. Much of the time, if you’re seeing them at all, it probably means they’re not so important. I startle a passer-by by seeming to lurk in the shadows, so I take out my phone and randomly mess with it, knowing I won’t look as suspicious that way.
I put my earbuds back in, and listen now to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Not for the first time, I wonder whether Nick Cave would embrace the idea of having someone like me as a fan, given my past and present lack of any plausible characteristics of a bad seed. I doubt that Cave himself lives such a badly seeded life now – he’s a few years older than I am – but as he’s the proprietor of a mythic space of his own creation, it’s solely up to him how much time he chooses to spend within it. This is something most accountants can only envy from a distance: a CEO or CFO can choose to define much of their role as performing – for the media and investors and customers and employees and probably in large part simply for their own motivation – but for someone like me, execution requires an immersion and inwardness that can threaten to erase any other sense of yourself. If accountants have a reputation for being boring, it’s only in the same way that blood and tendons and muscles might seem more boring – at least from a school anatomy class kind of perspective – than eyes and ears, let alone breasts and penises. Regardless, when I listen to Nick Cave, especially at his most gleeful and unrestrained, I sense the possibility at least of proximity to badness, at least of being one of the sordid characters in the background of a song, like the barkeep in Stagger Lee who says “I kick motherfucking asses like you every day,” although (I hope) without those then being noted as the last words I ever get to say before four holes get put in my motherfucking head.
I walk to Bay Street and then walk north for a few blocks. By now I mostly pass people who’ve been in the bars, or who work late shifts, or who are down and out, with a regular flow of inexplicable others who might have been imported just to fill the spaces between the people you can make sense of. A couple of guys along the way approach me for money, but the music is like rocket fuel and I rapidly leave them behind. Light emanates from everywhere; storefronts and signs are crisper and cleaner now than they are during the day, especially during a hot day when everything and everyone verges on clomping together into a multi-textured haze. Now I’m almost back where I started, a block from the securities commission, as if they’d laid out a coffin for me, and here I am returning to it.
I cross the road again, and now I’m approaching the big open space in front of the city hall. I’ve been passing the building for years, and so I never really see it now, except once in a while when it shows up in a movie or TV show, repositioned for its supposedly futuristic qualities. Actually now, it’s more like a long-outdated notion of the future. There’s a saucer-shaped structure in the centre where they hold council meetings, overseen by two curving office towers – from above they say it evokes an eye, although that would only make any sense to me if the eye were overseeing the city, rather than staring out into space. There’s a big square where they set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and where dignitaries periodically gather to pin medals on old soldiers or to kick off Pride month or for other events of that nature, and where at other times you find people hanging out in a rather desolate-seeming fashion. It’s almost empty now. I see a couple standing right in the centre, kissing, perhaps getting off on the idea that they could be seen from a thousand different windows. There’s a guy sleeping on one of the concrete-slab benches; someone else foraging in the trash; a few of those inexplicable others, just hanging around. I suppose I’m one of them too, even to myself. Maybe I’m ready to go home now, I think. I sit for a while, take out the phone, put it away again. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are sounding better than ever at this time, in this environment. I’m feeling proud and defiant, although I don’t know what I think I’d defying, probably just the inner state I had before I put on Nick Cave. I wonder how my mood would change if I switched to, say, Adele. I’m not that interested in finding out.
Someone’s walking directly toward me. I turn off the music, take out the earbuds. He’s a young, pale guy with thinning hair and hungry eyes. He’s walking as an assassin might approach a target, but I can see both his hands, and anyway I don’t worry about things like that. He stands in front of me, the scuffed tips of his shoes almost touching mine. He says: “Hey man, it’s you, I remember. You came to pay me back right? You know you still owe me right?” I just stare at him. He says, his conviction already faltering: “It was only twenty bucks but you still owe me.” I say: “So what was it, I was desperate to get home and I had no money, so I randomly went up to you and asked for money, because you looked like you were loaded and ready to give it away, is that what it was?” He says: “No man, it was because I was carrying and you didn’t have your wallet, and I was sorry for you because I know when someone needs it, because I’ve been there myself.”
“It’s not a bad story,” I say. “You almost make me remember.” I don’t want to pull out my wallet, but I reach for whatever’s in my pocket. It’s a five dollar bill and some change, maybe twelve bucks in all. I try my jacket pockets too; some stray bits of paper fall out to the ground, but no more cash. “You’ll have to settle for this,” I say. “Maybe you were sorry for me that time, but not as much as you said you were.” He takes it, saying: “You can give me the rest another time.” He asks if I could throw in a cigarette, but I tell him I don’t smoke. He says: “What you doing hanging out here anyway? Trying to attract the criminal element? This isn’t the place, I can tell you better places though.” I say: “No, I’m not looking for the criminal element. I’m just sitting, listening to music, I was listening to music. I didn’t feel like going home, but now I will, now you and I are square.”
“It’s all right, stay if you want to stay, I won’t bother you.” This only means he moves back a little and his stance becomes a little looser. “What’s your name anyway man?”
“You can call me Bob,” I say. He says: “I can call you Bob, but it doesn’t mean that’s your real name.” He’s very pleased at this deduction, smiling a yellowing mouthful. “That’s all right,” he says, “call yourself whatever you want. I’ve sometimes been called Speedy. Not for a while though, although I can still move pretty fast when I have to. Sometimes I do have to move real fucking fast, you know what I mean?” I say: “You mean running from the cops for instance?” He says: “No man, that’s only in TV shows. You can’t run from the cops, they always catch you. In real life I mean. I don’t watch as much TV as I used to. I’d like to though. Is HBO still around or did they shut down?” I tell him I’m pretty sure it’s still around, although I don’t have it myself. He tries to remember an HBO show he watched in the past, but can’t give me a single coherent clue about what it was. “You know what I’d like to do,” he says, “I’d like to go a drive-in movie. I only did that once, when I was a kid. I don’t have a fucking car, but I’d like to get a car, and then I’d like to drive in my car to a drive-in movie. You know, on Cherry Street.”
I say: “I’m pretty sure that closed. I saw it in the newspaper. HBO’s still around but the drive-in theatre closed.” He looks at me like I’m taking back the money I gave him. “Oh fuck, man,” he says. “How am I meant to get there if it closed?” He loses himself in rearranging his priorities. “Well, there must be a drive-in somewhere,” he says. “Just another reason to get out of this shithole. I’d like to have a farm, you know, a little community. I like people, I mean not all of them, but most of them. Someone like you, you’d be fine. You could take off the tie, kick back. Wander round butt-naked if you want, you probably wouldn’t be the only one.”
I stand up. “Anyway,” I say, “I should be getting home. I’m tired, you know.” But then I start walking in the wrong direction. He accompanies me, as I knew he would, as I suspect he will all night if I let him. “I think I saw you before,” he said. “This afternoon, walking down Bay. That was you right?” I say: “It could have been me. Or maybe you just took a lucky guess. Maybe you looked at the suit and figured there’s a good chance I was walking down Bay at some point.” He said: “No, no lucky guesses, do I look like someone whose life is full of lucky guesses. You were sitting over there” – he points in the right general direction – “and then you got up and started walking down Bay.” This all sounds very deliberate, as if he has ten more revelations of escalating astonishment-value waiting in the wings. I ask: “Why would you have noticed me in particular? Or do you have some weird memory that never forgets a face.” He says: “It happens all the time, there’s all these people in the city, in constant motion around each other. We’re passing by the same people all the time, but we don’t notice them, they don’t notice us. Once in a while we notice for some reason and we think it’s a big fucking coincidence, but that’s only because we noticed it, unlike all the other big fucking coincidences we never say anything about because we never noticed them.” He indicates a man walking with a dog, a yellow Labrador radiating engagement with every surface and contour. “I’ve seen that guy before too,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have remembered I saw him, to tell the truth. I remembered the dog though. Sometimes the most memorable thing about a man is his dog. Actually that’s often the most memorable thing.” I concede it seems like a memorable dog.
“You’ll be thinking about that now,” he says, “looking at faces on the street, trying to remember them and spot them again later. That’s something I’ve done for you.” He might be right, although I think it would be depressing to realize the extent of my recurring unregistered proximity to lots of over-burdened people. I’d be more interested in registering absence and distance than nearness. I don’t want to ask him any questions about himself; there’ll never be an end to his responses. I wonder how many people he latches on to in a day. Maybe I’m a more welcoming and accommodating presence than I think I am, or more likely the isolation of the night is its own accommodation. He says: “I’d love to have a dog, man. Just think right now if it was me and my dog. But I have too much energy, I’m up all night, moving. Dogs sleep twenty hours a day. We’re fundamentally incompatible. You don’t have a dog either, right? You would have said so.” This amuses me: “I haven’t told you anything about myself, so why would I have volunteered that I have a dog?” He says: “You’d be proud, so you’d be telling everyone, like if you were a movie star or you had special powers.” I say: “You’re all backwards on that. Movie stars look for anonymity.” He says: “I’m saying if you were a movie star who was here right now, instead of inside the fucking Four Seasons or something. You’d only be here now if you wanted to be recognized, like some kind of exhibitionist I guess.” I don’t see much point arguing.
“You’re right about the dog,” I say. “I mean, I don’t know about the pride and everything, but it’s true I don’t have a dog.” I had a dog for most of the eleven years I lived with Rosalie; he came with her, but over time I came to feel he was at least equally mine. We both talked to the dog more than we talked to each other; we touched it and saw it and felt it more than we did one another. When I worked late, I knew the dog was counting the minutes more than she was. After the dog died, we only stayed together another few months. Sometimes I think of Eliza as a partial reincarnation of the dog, no longer providing the sense of messy, fascinated devotion that accompanied the first incarnation, but allowing a comparable feeling of structure and relative safety, and at the same time constituting a sort of shackling and recurring constraint. I suppose it’s clearer now that the leash is really on me. When asked, I usually tell people I’d like to get another dog one day, but I don’t ever actively think about doing that. Perhaps it would just confuse matters too much. I look back to watch the man and his Labrador for as long as I can. Who wouldn’t want to believe as fervently as that dog does in the untapped promise of the next step, of the next air molecule?
Speedy chatters on about dogs that he’s known, or maybe ones that he’s imagined, I’m not sure which. I don’t yet know why I’m walking in this direction, although tomorrow, looking back on what comes next, I’ll think it’s around this time that I decide what comes next, even if the decision occupies my hands and feet more than my conscious mind. We’re at the back of City Hall now – continuing north up to Dundas and its cluster of Chinese restaurants. He remarks on how fast I’m walking. “You probably don’t think you’re in such amazing shape,” he says, “but you should give yourself more credit. A lot of people get too fucking tired to walk more than a couple of blocks. Doesn’t work so well for a life like this. It’s a younger man’s life, a life like this. How old do you think I am?” That question again, I think. It’s been years since I was able to answer it reliably: if I knew how old anyone else was, I’m sure I’d understand more fully how old I am myself. It’s even harder than usual with Speedy; I imagine a year in his life entails as much inner erosion as three or four of mine. I say: “Too old to be living like this. I know it’s easy for me to say, but you need to pull things together. I can tell you’re a guy with great potential.” He accepts this as a fair comment. “I wouldn’t take that from everyone,” he says, “but I know you just want me to do better. You’re not trying to lecture me, I can’t stand people who try to lecture me. Like, who’s to say their lives are so fucking great? We all have problems, on some of us it just shows more than on others.” He pauses and then concludes with a sense of verbal flourish: “On you it doesn’t show so much.” He goes on: “You didn’t tell me what you do man. It’s not a state secret is it, what you do?”
I consider trying to make something up, to see for how long I could keep it going: it flashes through my mind how I might describe my life as a volcanologist, or as a food tester, or as a talent scout, or as a high-tech shepherd. I particularly like the last one – I imagine how I might rattle on with stories of digital implants and invisible fences and drones and robotic dogs. I’m pretty sure a high-tech shepherd would never make the same money as a high-end accountant, no matter how much fancy technology was involved, but it would carry more glamour, even allowing that most people don’t consider sheep to be particularly exciting. A lot of people consider accounting to be interiorized and self-referencing to the point of complete denial, as if being able to move around a spreadsheet means you couldn’t possibly also find your way around an interesting conversation, or around a naked woman. I think perhaps we were making progress on leaving that behind, and then a partner from PriceWaterhouseCoopers lost his concentration at the climactic moment of the Oscars and handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope, confirming for the whole world that accountants can’t function adequately in the light. People got up my ass about that for at least a year afterwards, as if all accountants were linked to the same mediocre governing consciousness, and so all bear responsibility for one another’s failures. Of course Speedy isn’t likely to mock accountants in the way that lawyers and investment bankers do. I say: “It’s not a state secret, but it’s not interesting either. I’m not wandering round at this time of night so I can talk about myself.” This much seems true.
“Makes sense to me man,” he says. “No one likes to hear people ramble on about themselves. That’s not how you impress a date anyway.” We’re on Dundas now, walking west, past places with names like Queen’s Legend and Shanghai Spectacular and Royal Noodle, almost all closed or closing now. It’s a little food island stamped onto downtown – the major Chinatown is a few blocks further west. It’s around this time that I start to keep my head down, not looking at Speedy anymore, not looking up at all, except for what it takes to avoid an accident. He doesn’t notice of course. He says: “Where are you going anyway? Looking for takeout? I didn’t ask you to treat me but I wouldn’t say no either.” The streets are quiet now – the passing late-shifters widely scattered. An ambulance roars past, heading for one of the nearby hospitals; there’s not much traffic otherwise. I pull into the doorway of the Chinese Ocean, standing as far back from the street as I can, as hidden by the darkness as the city’s perpetual river of artificial light will allow. It takes him by surprise - he shoots past me and has to retrace a few steps. “What’s going on man,” he says, “looking for a place to sleep?” He laughs at that but then quickly gets serious: “Having some kind of problem? You can tell me man, I’ve seen it all.”
“I don’t know,” I say, “maybe I’m feeling a bit faint.” He comes right up close, as if trying to sniff out the malady. I say: “Do me a favour, stand out in the street and keep watch, I don’t want anyone to see me if I collapse or something.” He complies; then I stand there facing the door, my hands clutching my knees, breathing fast. He says: “Maybe you just stayed up too late. That’s why you didn’t want to tell me about yourself, because I would have said, Christ man, that’s just too tough on your bones.” I say: “Tell me if anyone’s coming.” He says: “Yeah, some guy. He’s not going to give a shit, people have seen it all.” I straighten up, turn around enough so I see the man when he passes. “What about now,” I say, “tell me if anyone’s coming.” “No one’s coming,” he says, “relax, puke up your guts, puke up a bucket of blood if you want, although I’d appreciate it if you aimed away from me,” and he laughs again, like someone who hasn’t always been aimed away from. I move closer to the road, so I can see what’s coming on this side, from the west. I see headlights; I can’t identify what’s behind them, but they look big and fast-moving and I decide this is it. I choose my moment, a moment of cruel instinct informed by whatever innate sense of oncoming speed and reaction time and momentum you acquire over fifty years, and I inhale and I exhale and I feel like I unclench a bunch of muscles that have merely been cowering within my body, and I slam out into the street and into him, at once punching and kicking him with a coordination I could never replicate in the gym, so that he loses all balance and posture and friction and falls spectacularly backwards, as if he’d been standing on a ledge, and even in the few seconds before he falls into the road and I start to run, it feels like I see him descend ten flights, the wind leaving streak marks on either side of him as if in a cartoon panel. I don’t know whether he’s hit, but I know the mundane order of the night has been broken. I run, east along Dundas to the first cross street, and then south for a block, and then west again along the next cross street. Approaching University, I look back; there’s no one behind me. I stop running, start walking, or some version of power-walking, still with my head down. I reach University and walk south; even at this time of night, I know I’ll get a cab within a minute or two; I see it coming and wave it down and get in. “Yonge and Bloor,” I say. I sink into the seat, never looking up, grateful I don’t have a talkative driver. There’s a green light at Dundas and we push right through; I don’t even have time to consciously prevent myself from looking toward the scene. After that it’s one of those unhindered late night glides that almost cause you to doubt the reality of the daytime dysfunction on these same streets. All I say to him is “I’ll get out here,” and then “Keep the change.”
I enter the subway, the northbound platform. The display says it’s five minutes to the next train. I lean against a wall, staring at my feet, but then I think that to the few people waiting with me, I’m going to be more conspicuous that way, so instead I take out my phone. I respond to a couple of easy messages, just to establish that at this moment I wasn’t doing anything to prevent me from responding to easy messages. The other passengers are mostly also traveling alone, all potentially contemplating their own transgressions, although I don’t think their transgressions smell as fresh as mine do. I get out after one stop, at Rosedale. I order an Uber as I walk to Yonge; I hardly have to wait for it. I’ve entered an address a few blocks from home. The guy says brightly: “Is this music all right with you?” I don’t know how to engage with the question – the sounds won’t disentangle themselves for me. He says: “It keeps me going on these late shifts.” It sounds very much like the music at Pi, or at least the heavy pulsating foundation sounds similar. For that reason then I welcome it, as if everything that happened in between was just a blip on the monitor. I don’t remember exactly when I left there, but it can’t even have been two hours ago – I just haven’t done enough for it to be that long ago. I mean, I’ve done enough for it to have been a lifetime, but it can’t have been two hours.
“The music’s fine,” I say. “It’s not what I would have put on, but maybe it should be.” He asks me what I would have put on; I mention four or five names and he seems impressed I made it that far. I expect he carries very low expectations for anyone over forty. The only name he responds to specifically is Bowie. Sometimes I think Bowie was less an actual person than someone we collectively invented to put other things in perspective. He says: “I’ve always wanted to know more about his life. I know a lot of the songs and some of the image changes and I tuned into the way he died and the music he released right at the end, but I don’t really have a timeline for how all the songs and images fit together.” I say: “That’s actually pretty appropriate. Bowie used to write lyrics sometimes using a cut-up method. He’d take a block of text and cut it up into pieces and then rearrange them to find an effect he liked. I think that’s partly why the songs seem at the same time totally unanalyzable and yet meaningful. Of course, it must have been a pretty high-quality block of text to begin with. I mean, he wasn’t cutting up the telephone book.”
“The telephone book,” he says. “Oh yeah, I remember that.”
I say: “So maybe your impression of his life is an application of his cut-up method.”
He says: “That’s only because I didn’t spend five minutes on Wikipedia getting things straight. Lives happen in the order they happen. I guess you can have new beginnings along the way, but each new beginning brings you closer to the ultimate end.”
“You might not be aware of that at the time though,” I say. With that, we arrive. I get out and start walking in the wrong direction until he’s out of sight, then I turn around and head for home. I think I’ve done enough to foil any plausible attempt to retrace my steps. I run the journey in my head, trying to think of all the points when I might have been caught on a camera, or in someone’s memory. I momentarily imagine that I’ve flashed through the consciousness of almost everyone in the city, and that not a single person will remember the experience as more than a brisk hint of troubled air.
I nod at the concierge – it’s someone I don’t recognize; those guys come and go all the time. In the elevator, I prepare myself to be greeted by Eliza, to tell her some story of my long convivial night in the bar or in the multiple bars, but of course she’s not there. I take off my shoes and my jacket, sit in the armchair I usually sit in, get up almost right away and walk to the window. Well, I think, Speedy’s still out there or he isn’t. He’s already latched on to someone else, telling the hardly-embellished story of how he was talking to someone he thought was a decent guy, until the guy tried to kill him, running away like a cowardly jackal without waiting to see if it worked, and so perhaps the guy’s already at home now – and if you saw this guy, he definitely lives in a mansion, you should search for him door by door in Rosedale - jerking off at his own image in the mirror, the image of a murderer, but actually of a delusional shit who didn’t hear the car brake and didn’t know it came to no more than scraped hands and knees and a new level of disenchantment. Or Speedy’s dead, and of course it was murder: even if the witnesses didn’t see much or only saw it out of the corners of their eyes, they saw enough to confirm that much, and the killer will be the most wanted man in Toronto at least until the next killing, and despite all my evasions, maybe there’ll be a photo or a psychic’s drawing that looks just like me, and my life will be over. Or else it’s something in between – and of course if you work with numbers, you know that reality almost always comes to settle somewhere in the middle of the bell curve – such as a concussion, or a broken leg, and as Speedy will almost certainly be an unpersuasive and unreliable-seeming witness, the police may toss their incident notes out of the window on the way back to the station.
Of course I’d like to know which of these realities I’m living in, but it’s probably too late at night to find out, and anyway, not knowing won’t keep me awake. I do what I need to do in the washroom; I get into bed. I almost invariably fall asleep within minutes; tonight is no exception. The last thing I remember thinking about is how I’m going to fire Chris, leading to a flickered fantasy of Chris throwing himself under a car, and then to another of the whole world dividing itself into drivers and the driven over. I wake up a few minutes before the alarm, but I don’t know whether that’s because of my excitement at entering the day, or because I was in a dream that chose to expel me. My initial thoughts are mostly about work; I swear there’s a part of me that constructs spreadsheets and reviews documents and calculations during the night. Then I think of the woman and the kid on the crosswalk thirty years ago, and how I drove over them and so ruined my other life, the one I didn’t actually end up living, although it suddenly feels like I did end up living it after all. Then I remember Speedy being pushed into the road, but I can’t tell if that’s a different incident or a newly-revealed facet of what happened thirty years ago, and then a few moments after that I remember being the one who pushed Speedy into the road and I disentangle my memories. Well, I say to myself philosophically, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and I don’t feel like second guessing it now. I walk to the living room, where I left my phone overnight. Eliza sent a text at 2 am: Just saying good night sweetie XXX. The message that registers is that she was still up at 2 am, probably because of what she’d been doing with Nora. I switch on the TV, on the local news channel. I sit with my laptop and search for: Toronto man pushed in front of car Dundas.
There it is on TV, within seconds of switching it on, as if curated expressly for my benefit:
“A Toronto man is recovering in hospital after allegedly being pushed in front of a car at Dundas Street east of University late last night. Several witnesses reported seeing one man push the other into the road and then run from the scene. The victim’s injuries are described as serious but not life-threatening. The suspect is described as white, medium-built, in his late 30’s to early 40’s, wearing a dark suit. Anyone with information is asked to contact 52 division or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 416-222-TIPS.”
This plays over an image of where it happened – a couple of police officers standing round pretending to point at the road and the sidewalk, people passing by, pretending not to notice the camera. The newsreader moves on. Just as I expected, it’s not the most dramatic outcome, nor the least. I find a couple of news stories online, all paraphrasing the same limited information. There was also a murder last night, in the west end; a teenage boy shot dead while he was walking home from a hockey game; and the media still hasn’t moved on from a teenage girl who was shot dead by her boyfriend the other day, especially as they haven’t found the boyfriend. So I imagine this pushed-in-front-of-a-car trivia will be out of the news rotation by mid-morning, and forgotten completely by tomorrow. I’ll probably have forgotten it myself by then, for all practical purposes. I don’t expect to be haunted or preoccupied by it. I mean, I knew what I was doing; it would be foolish to spend time revisiting something that I executed so consciously, and frankly so well, and apparently even like someone looking ten years younger.
I respond to Eliza’s text from last night, telling her I’m looking forward to seeing her later. It’ll probably be one of those evenings when I nap for an hour or two hours after I get home, to refresh myself for her arrival around eleven; we’ll talk and eat and make love and then I’ll fall asleep and she’ll probably stay awake to text Nora. I don’t care for the routine, but I’m used to it, and at least it helps me feel distinct from the mundane rhythms of regular relationships. Not that this will ever be an option with Eliza. I know there’s something desperate about her rejection of the conventional and the workable, about her refusal to be pinned down or to commit to a plan, even when it’s for the purpose of something that would clearly enhance her life, like a foreign trip or a concert. The best way of getting her not to attend an event is to tell her you already bought two expensive tickets for it – she even bailed on our Platinum section Madonna seats, calling me an hour before and claiming she had such bad cramps that she was on the verge of going to emergency, although of course they subsequently lifted, she said. I didn’t want to go alone, nor with another guy, so I went with a woman from work I could barely stand, and whom I entirely avoid talking to now because of negative associations. A while later, when I casually mentioned an upcoming P J Harvey show, Eliza pressed me into buying two tickets, insisting she wouldn’t cancel again; she canceled again, again on the evening of the concert, with such a lame story – about needing to oversee the emergency fixing of a leaking toilet – that it might actually have been true. Since then, the only way I’ll buy tickets for her is on one of the resale websites, and even then I wait until we’re virtually entering the taxi to head to the event; I fully expect that one day she’ll mess that up too, dashing out of the car at an intersection, mumbling some nonsense about an emergency text. But as with everything about Eliza, I’ve come to tolerate and even to rely on it. My main wish would be for greater equilibrium in her disruptiveness, that she’d sometimes surprise me by being there when I didn’t expect her, not solely by not being there when I did. If I said that out loud it would probably sound plaintive and dejected, but I don’t feel that way about it; it’s only like saying I wish I were taller, or that I had a more actorly-sounding speaking voice.
I’d like to tell Eliza about what I did, but perhaps strangely, I don’t think it would have much impact. She’d assume I must have had my reasons, even if I wasn’t admitting to them, and that it’s solely for me to decide whether to give myself up or not, and that as it remains inconceivable I’ll ever push her in front of a car, it provides no reason to reassess anything about us. Many would say she takes me for granted, and it’s true of course, but it’s not a small thing to maintain a place in the consciousness of a woman like Eliza. She doesn’t take for granted the logical progression of day into night or the prevailing organization of society, so to be one of the things she does take for granted is in its way transformative, like being elevated to the same category as the law of gravity, or the category of her hair appointments (because I don’t think she ever breaks those). If she knew about last night, it might elevate me further within such a category, or might just send me crashing out of it, if it strikes her as a portent of greater neediness ahead. I bounce this around in my head while I shower and brush my teeth and get ready. But then having Eliza in my head is always like that, a ball that perpetually bounces, never coming to rest. I don’t think any more about what I did, except in the context of Eliza, and except in the context of choosing what music to listen to on the way to work – I briefly consider choosing something somber and commemorative, and then choosing something purging and celebratory, and then when I end up listening to Roxy Music, I can’t really decide whether it reflects one train of thought or the other.
I walk to work, the density of people and suits around me increasing as I get closer to Bay. I don’t think the morning rush hour has the same sense of concentrated purpose here as in London or New York or presumably in the other A-level metropolises of the world. Toronto may be the biggest and most consequential place in Canada, but it doesn’t have the power and influence and magnetism of a top-flight city. We all know that, and maybe we acknowledge it and maybe we don’t, but the sense of our privileged second-tier-ness informs and calibrates everything, imposing a soft underbelly on our show of drive and ruthlessness. In those other cities, for instance, it’s almost inconceivable that someone like me could live in a big apartment so relatively close to his office, and conduct the vast majority of his life on foot. It’s almost a parody of what privileged living really demands of you. Usually I like this quality, but today I feel suspicious of it, of its compromises, of its vulnerabilities, of what they might do to its people, might already have done to me. Not that I’m looking to assign any blame, or that I even think blame is a relevant concept here. When people are perpetually in motion around each other, in the way Speedy talked about, they’re sometimes going to collide messily and destructively. That’s probably the whole story.
I turn off the music as I enter the lobby. I arrive at the same time as a guy from our investing group – I think he’s an analyst, someone else who pumps out paper to justify the conclusions that the decision-makers have already reached by instinct. He says: “We’re nearly there now. The due date is exactly two weeks from today, but they’re saying it could be any time.” From the way he launches into this, it seems we must have discussed it before, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything at all about his personal life. So I just say: “You must be very preoccupied.”
“Not as much as Alex,” he says. It seems to me Alex could be either a man or a woman. He manages to say several sentences about Alex without using a pronoun. I ask: “Are you having a boy or a girl?” He says: “We don’t know, we didn’t want to know.” I say: “I’ve never had kids or been close to, you know, the process, but doesn’t everyone want to know, for planning, expectation-setting?” He says: “I think they usually do, yes, but we see this as life’s greatest surprise. Perhaps as life’s last real surprise. We didn’t want to tamper with it.”
I say: “What about the way you’re going to die? Won’t that be a bigger surprise? Especially if it’s out of the blue.” I correct myself though: “Of course, it may not be a surprise you’re able to reflect on afterwards, so maybe it doesn’t really count.” He looks very displeased at this. “Why would you say that?” he asks, his voice unsteady. “I’m talking about new life and you bring up the most morbid prospect there is. Don’t you realize what an inappropriate vibe that is to introduce around a baby?” I should let it go, obviously, but I don’t. “The baby’s not actually here though is he, or is she,” I say. He says: “He or she, or whatever pronoun may apply, is here, in my thoughts, and even if that wasn’t true, I’ll be coming home tonight, and now I’ll be bringing that negative vibe with me.” “Jesus,” I say, “if you pick up a negative vibe just from something like that, what about all the other crap around the office? What about the shit that seeps out when you’re watching the news?” He says, on the verge of yelling at me now, “the shit on the news isn’t specifically directed at me and my baby is it.” “Well,” I say, “I’m sorry,” but I know I don’t say it with even a hint of conviction.
The elevator’s arrived now; he pushes before some others to escape into it. “I’ll get the next one,” I say, mostly to myself. We’re in one of the newer towers, with a ground floor designed to bathe the visitor in light and space, and so I suppose to impose a sense that everything that happens on the fifty or so floors above is powered by serene awesomeness. Although I’m usually skeptical of this effect, I sit now and try to absorb it. I even close my eyes for a while. When I open them, one of my staff, Cristina, is standing there, looking at me. She says: “I didn’t want to disturb you, you looked like you were considering something important.” I tell her it’s fine, not to worry. She asks how my meeting went yesterday, referring to the cover story I’d concocted. I haven’t even thought today about the threat from the securities commission. I tell her that was fine too. She says: “Actually there was something I wanted to talk to you about, but I was nervous, and I didn’t know if I’d get the chance. As we’re both here, could we do it now?”
I tell her that’s fine. She sits in the adjoining chair, although the chairs are so large they don’t encourage a sense of intimate conversation. It feels like a waiter should be coming round to take our cocktail order. She says: “You know I hate to complain, or to talk about myself at all, I just want it to be about the work.” I can certainly agree with this – she doesn’t at all convey the sense of entitlement that many of the others have. If she ever gets pregnant, I can imagine her taking off only a couple of weeks, and apologizing even for that. She says: “I respect the way you respect my personal life.” I suppose this refers to my total lack of interest in it. She says: “Not everyone’s like that. Someone on the team is giving me a problem. I tried to handle it myself, but it’s getting to be too much. I’m not even just saying this for myself. I think this person needs help.”
“All right,” I say, entering my empathetically authoritative mode. “You can tell me as much or as little as you like.” She’s quiet for a long time, and I wonder if that constitutes telling me as little as she likes. My mind goes to the same place it always goes when I talk to her, to the time when she revealed she doesn’t shower, because she’s militant – her word – about conserving water, and she doesn’t believe showering is necessary anyway, because it destroys beneficial bacteria and oils, or something along those lines. I don’t think I would ever have suspected it if she hadn’t said anything, and I don’t know how much it influences the sense I have of her, but she always makes me think of forests, of dense beds of fallen leaves yielding underfoot, of sweet smoke and soft air. It’s quite soothing to be around her, in a way I can’t say of anyone else. Still, I wish she’d never talked about the shower, because it also means she’s naked in a disproportionate amount of my thoughts about her, perhaps in virtually all of them, usually standing in her bathroom, applying the homemade deodorant she also mentioned.
She says: “I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. I just want to be left alone to do my work. I don’t want to have to talk about myself, or to answer endless questions about how I’m feeling, or what I did last night, or what I’m doing tonight. The problem is, it might not sound like harassment, not like having someone talk about my body all the time would sound like harassment. But from my perspective, that only makes it worse, because it’s so creepy and calculated.”
I say: “Do you want to tell me who it is?”
She says: “I thought it would be easier to do it down here than to come into your office as I planned to do, but now it feels more difficult. Everything I’m talking about with her exists only at work. I don’t want to will it into existing anywhere else. Not that I’m superstitious.” I say: “With her?” She doesn’t say anything. I go on: “Oh, you’re talking about Mary.” Certainly I was aware that Mary treated her rather oppressively. But I suppose I’d believed that Cristina could tolerate it indefinitely, in the weary way that older people sometimes have to be tolerated, far more easily than she’d tolerate more modest intrusions from one of the younger males. She says: “See, that sums it up. Everyone knows she pays extra attention to me, but they think it’s sweet, that she’s a nice old lady who sees me as a second daughter or some shit like that.” Mary is actually a year younger than I am, but I let it go. She goes on: “I used to see it that way myself, but now it’s too far beyond that. I can’t get half an hour alone. She eavesdrops on my calls, she takes my stuff off the printer and comments on it, she interrogates me about what I do at night, she emails me all the time, she puts her hands on me. I just can’t stand it. And I’ve tried, because I realize she’s probably lonely and unhappy and all the rest of it. But it’s not my responsibility.”
I’ve never heard Cristina talk like this. I can see that it’s tough for her, but also that she doesn’t carry a glimmer of doubt, which is also unusual for her. And I’m displeased with myself, because I knew all of it, every single detail; I’d either seen it, or heard fragmented reports of it, or else guessed it. I flash ahead to an imagined future hearing or deposition or trial where I’m asked how I could have known it all and not done anything to stop it. And maybe I’d want to say: I just didn’t join the dots, I’m sorry. And they’d say: you mean you were too blind or too complacent to see what was in front of you. And I’d want to say: you don’t realize how much there is in front of me, and to all sides of me, and behind me; you don’t realize how many dots there are, and how many ways they can be joined up, and how easy it is to join them up to form a blindfold or a wall, rather than the difficult truth beyond. You don’t realize that the dots aren’t passive – as we’re trying to join them up, they’re shifting and shimmering so as to resist being joined, and sometimes they’re fighting back and joining us up, because we’re only dots too. And maybe I’d want to say, as if thinking it would shut them up, whoever they are: Just the night before that, I joined the dots up so imaginatively that I figured out I should try to kill a random guy, and I very nearly did kill hm too. So don’t talk to me about being blind or complacent, not for as long as you’re just holding me here asking questions, rather than being the one of whom questions should be asked.
I say: “I assume you must have told her to stop, in various ways. Does she realize how she makes you feel?”
“I’ve tried to tell her, but you know what she’s like, she doesn’t really see me as an equal. I made the mistake of telling her my mom died when I was young and I never really got on with my stepmom. I think she saw it as an invitation to step in. So now she brushes off everything I say, just like some moms disregard their children. But it’s not just that. She does tell me I’m pretty, she tells me how I should do my hair, when she approves of my clothes and when she doesn’t. She won’t approve of the neckline I’m wearing today, I can tell you for sure. But she’ll also stare at it more than any of the guys will.”
“So it is a kind of sexual harassment too,” I say, succeeding in not looking to the neckline myself, but failing in not thinking of her getting dressed this morning, after not having a shower, after applying her homemade deodorant. She sighs. “I think it’s certainly some kind of sexual harassment,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way to her, it might only push the conversation down the wrong road. The way she’s treating me is wrong.”
“I’ll talk to HR about it,” I say. “I mean, I’ll certainly talk to her about it, but I’ll consult with HR first to get their input.” It’s a glum prospect – talking to the people at HR is like handing them a bag of sand and then waiting while they transfer the contents to be weighed on an old-fashioned scale, one grain at a time. I ask: “Do you think she’s capable of changing?”
“Can children make their mothers change? Once in a while I suppose. They can’t count on it though.”
“All right,” I say. “I’m glad you told me.” It wouldn’t bother me at all if Mary had to go. Like many men my age, I’d rather work with younger women, and therefore avoid all the lessons and warnings inherent in interacting with women my own age. The only problem is, if I’m talking to HR about getting rid of Mary, I can’t talk to them about Chris too; it’ll look like I’m sinking, and I don’t want to have to replace two people at once. I wonder if it might be sufficient just to fire Chris, with a few “there but for the grace of God”-type warnings in Mary’s direction to scare her into virtuousness, but more likely I should fire Mary now, and get to Chris later. I suppose our asses are constantly being protected by the clumsy interventions of others, tripping and falling into the way of the booted feet that were poised to kick at us.
“You know I don’t like to complain. I just didn’t have a choice.”
“Of course not,” I say. “And things like this never stay isolated. The poison spreads from one limb to another, and the whole body gets infected.” I don’t really know what that would mean in this specific instance, but it sounds good to me, and she nods as if taking something from it. “All right,” she says. She stands; I see now how heavily she’s trembling. “Wait a second,” I say. She obeys, as if I’d told her to hold her breath and remain immobile. I say: “Mary just came in, I thought you’d probably rather wait until she’d gone up.” She asks: “Did she see us?” “I don’t think so,” I say. “She swept into the elevator like a teacher entering a classroom; she must have scared the other people in there.” Cristina says: “And then the first thing she’ll do will be to sweep her way to my desk. And when I’m not there, she’ll take note of it, and she’ll ask me about it as soon as I come in.” I tell her she can work from home if she prefers, or from an office on a different floor. “It’s all right,” she says, “knowing I’ve told you and that I have your support, it means a lot.”
I tell her I’m going to stay in the lobby for a while longer. She gets up and walks to the elevator. She makes the space feel unquestionably warmer. If I were ever to consider becoming a naturist, I’d want someone like Cristina to accompany me. I don’t fantasize about having her in my bed, but to be with her in a field or a glade, pushing her down into the earth while the sun drilled into my neck and my buttocks, would be some kind of ultimate arrival point. She gives no hint of being a naturist, but then she’s discreet enough to maintain several secret lives. I watch the doors close on her. One day, I think, the elevators of the world will all decide in unison to collectively inhale and pulverize the poor fools who placed themselves into their trust, and the buildings they occupy will be sealed off forever as blood-spattered memorials, forcing the survivors to begin again on the ground. I’m not sure what will happen to the people already in the buildings when that happens, whether they’ll be allowed to escape by the stairwells. Stairwells are low-tech compared to elevators, so they may be excluded from the conspiracy. I reflect now on how little I’ve ever liked the sweeping views from the upper floors, the master-of-the-universe-type views. I think it’s gradually destabilizing to regularly see human beings and their homes and neighborhoods reduced to such tiny abstractions, to place yourself so far away from whatever threat or opportunity or pleasure or pain they represent. If I worked on the ground, like a street sweeper or a butcher, I’m sure I’d have a more balanced view of my entitlements. The same probably goes for Mary. Maybe the danger is less for millennials, because given their dependence on screens and images, it barely matters whether their feet are on the ground or a mile above it. A few minutes go by, consumed by this kind of reverie, not a very relevant one to what I’m supposed to be doing. In fact – and I check my phone to confirm this – I’m already late for a meeting. Even as I’m looking at the phone, I get a text message asking if I can make it. I respond that I’m on my way and they should start without me. I head to the elevator, fairly sure this won’t be the day of the uprising.
But then something else happens, possibly an uprising of another kind. I get into the elevator with two other guys. In succession, we press the buttons for the 32nd, 33rd and 34th floor, and given the configuration of the buttons, this means a row of three green lights, like a winning pull of the lever. This astonishes me, but I don’t want to comment on it, for fear of sounding like a kid reacting to some shape he sees in the clouds. Fortunately, the 34th floor guy seems equally fascinated, and less inhibited about expressing it. “Look at that,” he says. He’s pale and lanky with shoulder-length hair, wearing jeans; he looks like someone situated either at the bottom of an organization chart, or else at the very top of it. “Jackpot,” I say appreciatively. We both look at the third man; he looks up from his phone, to the extent his stiff-looking collar allows him to look up. “Oh yeah,” he says, “very cute.”
The 34th floor guy says: “So what do the rest of you think, it’s a symbol of common destiny? Like we should give up what we’re doing and focus on figuring it out?” I’m amazed that he’d say something so outlandish and yet so aligned with my own mindset. The 32nd floor guy says sharply: “Sure, you two guys follow the call of the lights and run off together, I don’t see it becoming a threesome though.” I think the 34th floor guy dislikes this as much as I do, and instantly forms a similarly unfavorable impression of the 32nd floor guy. Then the 32nd floor guy grimaces at himself, and starts to say: “I didn’t mean to…” The doors open on his floor; he shrugs and gets out. After the doors close, I say: “What an asshole.” We’re immediately on my floor; I take a step out; the 34th floor guy starts talking, and I stay where I am, blocking the door. He says: “Well, I’ve always been superstitious. I’ll admit to you that I believe in a lot of things that polite society doesn’t officially believe in. Including the existence of signs where you wouldn’t ever have looked for them.” It’s pretty clear that he could jump head-first into this topic and not emerge from it any time soon. Even so, and despite my meeting, I say: “Give me an example.” The elevator is already whining; he exits with me and lets it go. He says: “Well, since you asked, I think it’s plausible for instance that we have aliens living among us. I don’t know how many, or for exactly what purpose, but I think it’s plausible. Probably not including the gentleman we just met.”
“Jesus,” I say, “I don’t know what’s going on nowadays. Last night I was talking to someone, one of my colleagues, who thinks we might be living in a computer simulation. And now we have aliens among us. Or are those basically the same thing?”
“The computer simulation theory comes up a lot,” he says, “but it’s pretty obviously bullshit.”
I ask: “You think it’s plausible we have aliens among us, but is there any evidence for it?”
He says: “To me it’s the best way of explaining many of the things we can’t otherwise explain, for instance why some societies developed faster than others.” I say: “Because aliens helped them out.” “Yes,” he said, “basically.” He says: “If you actively think of us as in part a laboratory, a lot of things start to make more sense.”
Charlmane at reception is looking quizzically at me, probably wondering whether I’m being pounced on by some random eccentric and whether I’m capable of extricating myself. I flash a big smile, mainly for her benefit. “But for everything that might make more sense,” I say, “wouldn’t there be something else that makes less sense? I mean, why would aliens want to deny their natures for generation after generation, hiding away among inferior beings?” “That’s a great question,” he says appreciatively. “And there’s no way we can know the answer. But for example, they might be like super-intelligent ants. The population living among us might be the equivalent of a small sliver of the worker population. If the queen tells them this is what they have to do, then that’s all they need to know. Like I said, we’d simply have to accept it’s not entirely within our understanding.”
I just can’t bring myself to wrap it up. I say: “I guess it doesn’t matter if we believe in these aliens or not. I mean, after getting away with it for so long, they’re not going to slip up now, and even if we knew for sure they were here somewhere, we couldn’t practically do anything with the information. So it seems to me like a belief without consequence.” He says, loving every step of this: “But we don’t know that either. Maybe they’re putting in the time until mankind acquires the collective awareness and wisdom to acknowledge their presence. When we get to that point, for example when maybe 50% of us become believers, then we’ll have met their test, and their purpose will be revealed. The start of a whole new world.” And I do believe he’s glimpsing it as he speaks. One of my staff, Dora, from the meeting I’m supposed to be at, is standing next to Charlmane now, trying to get my attention. I gesture at her in some formless way. I say to him: “Or maybe that’s when they’ll decide the whole experiment is getting away from them and they should just wash us all down the celestial drain.” He says: “I don’t think you’re really that big a pessimist. You have to believe we’re working toward something good.” I say: “You see how convoluted that got? You called me a pessimist for suggesting that a bunch of hidden aliens – who I don’t actually believe in – might have motives worse than we hope for. I don’t think that’s a meaningful definition of pessimism.” “I’ll give you that one,” he says. “You must be an optimist because you believe in the value of this kind of conversation. You’re looking outward and upward, just like I’m trying to do.”
I suppose this means I’m at least one step closer to making contact with the aliens. “All right,” I say. “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you around though.” I tell him my name; his name’s Seton. As he steps back into the elevator, he says: “Hey, moving upward, like I just said.”
I stay where I am a few moments longer, perplexing Charlmane and Dora even more. When I finally move, Charlmane says: “Who was that guy? It looked like you brought your weed dealer to work.” I say: “That probably only tells me he looks like your weed dealer.” I like Charlmane because I think she finds me faintly ridiculous, in a way unique to her. I wouldn’t like that to become the predominant impression of me, but as long as it’s just one person, I can take it as an endorsement of sorts. Dora says: “We started the meeting, but we couldn’t do anything without you.” I consider tormenting her further by making her wait while I go to the washroom, and then to the kitchen to get a coffee, and then chatter to someone else in the corridor; the first two of those wouldn’t even be contrived delays. But I follow her into the meeting room. Two more of my staff are sitting there; several other people are patched in by phone. It should have been a video conference, but we usually fail to get that to work. “Apologies,” I declare as I enter, “I was unavoidably detained by someone who wanted to talk to me about space aliens. Obviously he’d seen our meeting agenda.” We’re discussing obscure accounting topics, the sort that make you wonder if you’ll ever see the sky again. To buy time, I ask them to summarize what they’ve covered so far, but of course they haven’t covered anything. This is one of those many situations that shapes how people assess your worthiness to occupy your position, your effectiveness as a leader. You need to show them you have something they don’t – an intuitive grasp of the complexities that are bogging them down, a capacity to explore those complexities and to stretch and to transcend them. You don’t have to be perfect – it’s better if you’re not – but your people have to understand the imperfections as a necessary aspect of your greatness, as relief valves or cooling mechanisms. You have to occupy the moment completely, while always suggesting a sense of urgency to get out of it. You have to remember past discussions and decisions better than they do, while also being less constrained by them. Perhaps this is the only area of existence in which I could attain this, but at least I found one.
An hour and a half later we’ve agreed on – that is, I’ve basically dictated – what we’re going to do: Dora and Adam are going to work on a memo to document our approach to this bloodsuckingly dull but unavoidable issue; Matt is going to instigate the system changes; Viraf and Jodie are going to liaise with other groups to make sure nothing falls between the cracks. I assign to myself the task of communicating our decision to the external auditors, and getting them to agree to it. I already know how this will go: the auditors will initially express skepticism; then they’ll charge us thousands of dollars to research the issue for themselves; then they’ll endorse our approach, with just enough caveats and reservations to prove they didn’t entirely snooze through the whole exercise. I don’t hold them in any respect, but if you make your living as an auditor, I think you get used to that. The meeting comes to a close, and we allow ourselves some token chatter before moving on to the next thing. Someone asks if I was entirely joking when I said I’d been talking to someone about space aliens. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this throughout the meeting, approximately as much as I’ve been thinking about the topic of conversation. I summarize the things Seton said to me, as best as I can in twenty seconds. “But I don’t mean to take the tone I’m taking,” I say. “I don’t think he’s correct, at least not on the basis of what he’s told me so far, but I respect him for developing his view of the world and for being as willing to share it with a stranger. It takes a lot of balls to put yourself on display, to someone who might see you as a madman.”
Viraf says: “Maybe he thought you were one of the aliens. I know I often do.” That gets a solid laugh, and it’s a good place to stop. I go to the kitchen for a coffee, linger there to look at my phone. It’s approaching the point, as it does every month or two, where the volume of messages gets away from me and therefore I ignore all of them, knowing the important ones will find a way to survive. Usually though there’s a specific reason for that, like an emergency - yes, an accounting emergency - that swamps everything else. At this moment, it’s just my torpor and indifference. Well, I tell myself, trying to kill a guy takes it out of you. I don’t have any messages from Eliza. She’s probably still asleep though. I wander with my coffee over to Chris’s office. He’s on the phone, but when he sees me he wraps it up immediately, indicating he was probably only talking to his wife. I ask about his kid, already knowing it can’t have been a big deal, or he wouldn’t be here now. He says: “It was a false alarm, she was already almost back to normal by the time I got home. Kids are so delicate, it’s easy to overreact to every little thing.”
I don’t say anything. He asks whether I left right after he did. I say: “More or less. I hung around for a while, finishing my drink.” He says, rather smugly and knowingly: “More or less? Sounds like you’re hiding something. Maybe you tried to relive the good old days you were telling me about.” I say, as matter-of-factly as I can, “someone did come over and talk to me for a while, but she left. Men and women can talk, you know. I was probably home within half an hour.” He says: “It was great to go out, we should do it more often.” Better check with your wife before you say that, I think.
I briefly tell him about the meeting I just had; he fills me in on the meeting he just had. I go to my office. It faces east, away from the lake and away from the downtown cluster, toward mostly conventional condo buildings and big desolate patches beyond that; it’s probably the worst direction to face in, judged by conventional spectacle, but that fits my loathing of being up this high, at least allowing me a slight feeling of restraint. To have a postcard-worthy view of the CN Tower, by comparison, would constitute a big show of grandiosity. I also chose a smaller office than I would have been entitled to occupy, and then I resisted bringing in a single personal item. I seldom print anything out, and I don’t leave my files or books out in the open, so it generally resembles an empty office where a visitor sat to plug in his laptop. I keep my home fairly neat and sparse too – as far as Eliza allows, because she has a mysterious ability to mess up and clutter any space she passes through - but not to the possibly compulsive extent of my office. I think this might represent a frail attempt to deny my identity as the chief accounting officer – that is, as one of the most embedded, organically intertwined members of senior management, as someone who necessarily has to know about everything, because everything has to be accounted for. If my office looks like the location of someone who’s little more than a visitor, then I must be freer than the chief accounting officer could ever logically be, and so I can’t in fact be the chief accounting officer. I’m not sure why this seems to me a good thing, beyond the natural human interest in keeping one’s options open: I’m committed to my job by all conventional measures; I’m content with the path I chose in life. Perhaps I’m so sensitive to the accountant’s need for objectivity and skepticism that I strive in some areas to seem as neutral and affectless as possible.
My assistant Kayla comes in. She says: “Cedric said you should come and see him as soon as you’re out of your meeting.” This isn’t what I want to do, but he’s my boss. He’s six floors above, with the rest of the executives: we weren’t able to get space on consecutive floors when we moved in. I start walking to the elevator, but then I consider the possibility of another time-stopping manifestation and I decide to take the stairs. I think again about how stairwells resist modernity – they’re always grey and stuffy and heavy-feeling, no matter how sleek and fresh the building surrounding them. I think of it as stepping into the colon: of course the building doesn’t dispose of its literal and figurative shit by pouring it into the stairwell, and anyway, nowadays people worry about keeping their colons clean and healthy, but no one talks about prettifying the stairwell, as if it were even more intimate than the colon, even less susceptible to being acknowledged. Everyone should in theory step in here at least once a year, when the building has its annual fire drill, but in practice most of my colleagues learn the time of the drill in advance, and then make sure they’re already downstairs when the alarm starts sounding. I usually do that myself. But now I’m happy to be in here, even if I’d rather be heading down than up. I ascend very slowly, measuring each step deliberately and evenly, counting off the arrival of each mid-point between floors, and then each new floor, as if there’s any likelihood of my picking up too much momentum and carrying on past Cedric’s floor, to whatever’s at the top, or beyond.
At the exit to the 39th floor, I pass an empty cardboard box, the outer packaging for a printer. This reminds me of an incident in the past, perhaps three or four years ago, when a printer had been delivered to my floor, and went missing from reception before it could be unpacked, during a period of just a few seconds while Charlmane’s predecessor at reception was away from her desk. We consulted the security cameras, but some of them had mysteriously malfunctioned, and the others didn’t give us anything to work with. For several days, the place was anxious with theories about the stolen printer, and whether it pointed to greater looming insecurity or danger. Thinking about it now, some of the theories stopped only slightly short of invoking aliens among us. Anyway, nothing else in a similar vein ever happened, and it turned out we decided we didn’t even really need the printer, so we never ordered a replacement for it. It comes to mind now because I think this box held the same make of printer. I speculate that it wasn’t stolen at all, that it slipped somehow into the folds of the building, and is just being digested now. Maybe the building was waiting to deposit this at my feet, as a rebuke, or a nudge, or a wink. I stop to examine the box more carefully, but there’s no packing slip or invoice to confirm it’s actually the same one. I pick it up and take it with me, for further investigation later.
I hear footsteps coming down, moving much faster than mine. I wait against the wall. She sees me and gasps. “Jesus,” she says, “I never see anyone in here.” I don’t know who she works for, but she looks vaguely familiar. I can never decide whether I have a good memory for faces or a terrible one, somewhat compensated for by imagination and fantasy. She asks: “Are you locked in here?” “No,” I say, showing her my pass. “I thought I’d take the stairs for a change. I found this box in here.” “Well,” she says drily, “that’s quite a treasure.” She adds: “I found twenty bucks in here once. I felt bad about keeping it because I thought it must belong to a cleaner or a maintenance person, someone who couldn’t afford to lose it. I kept it anyway though.”
I say: “Sounds like you must use the stairs a lot.” She says: “Well, usually just in this direction.” She says: “You look familiar to me somehow.” I say I was thinking the same thing. I say: “I work at DeRan Kingston. I’m the chief accounting officer there.” She says: “Never heard of it. It’s in this building?” The unashamed lack of recognition is refreshing. I tell her we occupy a couple of floors, that we’re an investment firm. “You invest in different companies,” she says; I confirm that’s what I meant. She says: “I work for McInnis Research, investment analysts.” I say: “Yeah, I know a few people from there. That’s probably why we recognized each other, maybe we sat in on the same meeting at some point. I didn’t know they were in this building though.” She says: “They’re not, I just come in here to use the stairs.” I don’t have a response; she laughs and hits me on the arm. “I’m just joking,” she says. “We moved in here a few months ago, that’s probably why you didn’t know we were here. We used to be in one of the older buildings on King East.” People who work in downtown Toronto perpetually get into this – happily listing all the different buildings they’ve worked in. I feel that with a few more rounds of questioning I could identify the exact occasion at which we met each other, but I don’t suppose it would cause either one of us to appreciate this particular moment any better. I say: “Maybe I’ll run into you again. Well, maybe I’ll send you a message and we can get together for coffee. We can reminisce about this time we spent in the stairwell.” I hand her a business card from my jacket pocket. She says: “I’ll get in touch for sure. My name’s Leslie, Leslie Williams.” I introduce myself; we shake hands, both still laughing at the incongruity of it. “Let me know if you find a good home for the box,” she says. She keeps on going down.
I exit from the stairwell, leaving the box in an alcove nearby, to mystify someone else. I arrive at Cedric’s office. We review again my interview from yesterday, although I don’t have anything to add to what I already told him. He says: “The only new input into the equation is the recent board turnover, in particular Oswald Fleck.” Fleck is one of our new directors; he likes to present himself as a leader in governance and ethics, although it seems to me his main ethical principle has been to go where the money is, and then to distance himself with pious speeches when anything goes wrong. Cedric says: “I’m going to have to fill them in on what’s happening, when I deliver my quarterly report. I have a feeling Ozzie might be hard to satisfy.” I wasn’t aware Cedric was on sufficiently good terms with Fleck to call him Ozzie; I wouldn’t have guessed even Fleck ‘s wife was on such terms with him. He says: “Ozzie’s more of a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire man.” I wait for more. He says: “Especially for someone leading our accounting team, Ozzie might take the view we can’t afford to have the slightest question about propriety and integrity.”
I say: “When you say Ozzie might take this view, I assume you’re saying you already know he does take this view.” Cedric says: “I certainly have good reason to believe that, yes.” I say: “And so, what then?” Cedric says: “I don’t know, it could get nasty.”
I go and stand by the window, to impose a symbolic sense of distance. “Just say what you mean,” I say. Cedric approaches massively consequential decisions decisively, but can often hardly bring himself to approach less consequential ones at all. I remember once how he dithered for months about firing a flagrantly incompetent clerk. It occurs to me now that to fire me would be fairly consequential, and so perhaps not so difficult for him, despite his unease at this moment. He counts me as a friend, I think, but that’ll just make it easier for him to assume I’ll come round to seeing it from his perspective. He says: “At this moment I don’t want it to mean anything. I’m afraid it may come to mean something.”
“I’m happy to meet with him,” I say. “I can explain to him how groundless this is, I can address any questions he has.”
Cedric says: “I already offered that. He doesn’t want to do it. He says he doesn’t want to be in the position of trying to adjudicate the facts, that’s not what a director does. He wants me to adjudicate the facts, and then satisfy him on how I did it.”
“So that’s fine then,” I say, “you tell him you’ve questioned me in detail, and you’re satisfied there’s nothing to it.”
“Well,” says Cedric, “that likely won’t be enough. The Commission is conducting a thorough investigation. Interviewing you is only one part of it; they’re also looking at emails, other documents, and so forth. We don’t have the time and resources to replicate that here, but we can’t take one man’s word over that kind of thoroughness, no matter how much we value the man.”
“Fine then,” I say, “wait until the investigation is completed. It’s only an investigation. Innocent people get investigated for things all the time. I mean, sometimes other people just outright lie about them.”
“Yes indeed,” says Cedric. “But the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ standard, for lack of a better way to put it, doesn’t necessarily apply in all cases. Some surfaces have the capacity to withstand a certain amount of dirt, others have to be kept spotless at all times. It’s a risk and reward thing. The job is bigger, but so is the exposure to random stones and arrows.”
“All right,” I say, “so it’s over. You actually called me up here to say I should either resign or be fired.” I’m already adding up my assets, constructing a hazy lifetime projection of anticipated returns versus estimated outflows, peering to see when the cash runs out. It probably runs out earlier than I do, if I never work again. But I can’t seriously engage with such a hypothetical future. I say: “I can think about it I suppose. But I don’t like it. What about the other directors? They must know what I’ve contributed, what my reputation is.” Cedric assures me this is the case. “But Ozzie’s a powerful voice,” he says. “That’s why they wanted him on the board, as a bulwark against complacency.” “A bulwark,” I say, and then I repeat it again, and then I say it a third time.
Cedric says: “Look, I’m not saying we’re at that point of no return. I just wanted you to know which way the wind is blowing. Or might be blowing.” I’m getting lost in winds and surfaces and smoking fires and bulwarks, especially bulwarks. He says: “My report’s not due for a couple of days. We have time to consider further, maybe to come up with some kind of proposal. Obviously I don’t want this, it’s the last thing I want.” That’s how I know it’s virtually all over for me. It’s too large a turning point for me to absorb while standing here before this inadequately squirming individual. Cedric’s office is the opposite of mine – it must contain every gift and souvenir he ever received, some of them displayed on shelves, most of them on the floor, competing for space with books and files and with random items such as a Downton Abbey DVD boxed set, which I know has been there for at least two years. He has a closet containing two suits, several collared shirts and several golf shirts, a raincoat, a sweater, I don’t know what else. It strenuously announces not just the blurring of his personal and professional lives, but his relishing mastery of that blurring; if they tried to push Cedric out as he’s pushing me out, you’re supposed to feel it would disrupt the building’s structural integrity. It’s all nonsense, all crap, but I could use such handholds now. I look at my phone; I want him to think I’m looking at something crucial to this unfolding moment. Actually I’m looking up the definition of “bulwark.” The first definition I find is simply “a solid wall-like structure raised for defense” and then there’s another definition relating to ships. That’s Ozzie then, a solid wall-like structure against the tornados of complacency that would otherwise wash over the board. Obviously I can’t break through a solid wall-like structure.
Cedric says: “You’ll always be in demand. The worst that will happen is that you’ll sit on the sidelines for a while, until the stink from the investigation is entirely cleared, then someone will snap you up, and we’ll be kicking ourselves for letting you go. And of course, if you walk away from us, it won’t be without a package. And then you’ll probably come after us with a lawyer and extract an even bigger package.” I just keep staring at my phone. He says: “What’s the state of your team? I’ve never had to worry about it, you’ve kept such a tight ship. Who’s the current second in command?” “Chris,” I say. Cedric can’t remember who that is. “Is he ready to step up?” he asks. “Sure,” I say, “he’ll hit the ground running.” I imagine Chris stepping up to the platform, blinking and gasping, buckling under the realization that no volume of calls from his wife can save him from gradual suffocation. Of course, it doesn’t usually work out that way; people usually rise to the challenge, or the challenge lowers itself to them. “The team’s fine,” I say, “no HR issues at all.” Cedric says: “Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’m going to stand my ground with Ozzie. I’ll tell him this would be like cutting off our nose to spite our face.” “Well, not really,” I say, “his premise would be that the nose is diseased and needs to be removed before it infects the rest. It may be an incorrect premise but it wouldn’t be done out of spite.” “All right,” says Cedric, “I won’t put it that way. I’ll tell him there’s no disease here. Even if there is, we can be confident it won’t spread. It’s not like a nose on a face. It’s more like…” He can’t think what it’s like.
“Anything can spread,” I say. “Within a corporation, there’s nothing that’s not infectious, and there’s no such thing as a bulwark, probably. We should probably be grateful for the infections we can see and manage, because meanwhile we’re being slowly killed by the ones spreading behind our backs.” I walk out at that point, even as I can see he’s about to say something else. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, directly or indirectly. I sit for a while in a nearby empty office. I’m late for another meeting already. The only major reason to attend that meeting today is to avoid having to do it tomorrow, or the day after that. If those future consequences don’t apply, then there’s no reason to go now. I suppose I should maintain an appearance of normal engagement to avoid speculation and awkward questions, and to increase my negotiating position if it does come to that. But there’s no such thing as the appearance of being the chief accounting officer – that’s your reality, or it isn’t, and I feel it’s no longer my reality, because the position is a constant negotiation with the future, a future I’ve just been expelled from.
I power off my phone. I try all the drawers in the desk I’m sitting at, and one of them opens. It contains mainly paperclips and elastic bands, and an old copy of the HR manual. I push my phone into the very back of the drawer, possibly never to be found. I pause to assure myself that all the contacts I give a shit about are on my personal phone. I can only think of one person I give a shit about, and I’ve memorized her number, so I conclude it’s fine. I consider my next move. The CEO, Bob Baines, walks by, probably on his way to Cedric’s office. Bob knows who I am, of course, but like Cedric, he seldom talks to anyone not joined directly to him on the organization chart, and if he does, he talks to the exciting guys in strategy and marketing, not to the accountants. He stops now though, in the same way he’d probably stop if he spotted a stray cat in the office, sparing himself a whimsical smile. “Kevin,” he says. “Are you contemplating what life would be like up here in the clouds? No doubt it’s less exciting than you hope.” It’s clear he doesn’t know my situation yet, although he might be just a few minutes from finding out, not that I know what items of information Cedric considers Bob Baines-worthy or not. I say: “No, if anything I was contemplating what life would be like down on the ground.” Bob says: “It’s important to make time to think. It’s my greatest challenge in this role. I often reflect on how little time the current President of the United States appears to spend thinking. That could only succeed with enormous intuition, or enormous luck. He may actually have enough of the latter to get by.”
I’ve never mastered the knack of talking politics with executives – I feel I always reject the wrong simplicities and embrace the wrong complexities. I say now: “His luck is everyone else’s damnation. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed any public figure as much as I loathe Trump.” Bob is surprised, but intrigued. “Well,” he says, “I may agree with you. Officially in this role, I’m usually inclined to focus on the two or three policy decisions I agree with and to downplay the rest. In Mr. Trump’s case, I can’t even count up to two or three rational policy decisions, and the rest are terrible. Many of my contacts tell me it’s merely an extreme case of politics as usual, but it’s hard for me to see it that way.” He looks deeply worried, and more wrinkled than usual; perhaps he uses this room to air out the real him. “Of all the times in human history,” he says, “this might be the one when we most need to be having a broad-based, rational discussion about how to steer into the future. I’m talking about climate change, aging populations, debt loads, changing values, you name it. And not a single element of that conversation is taking place. It’s a cliché to talk about fiddling while Rome burns, but that’s certainly the phrase that comes to mind.”
“As if Trump would ever have the refinement to play an instrument,” I say. He chuckles at that. “Still,” he says, returning somewhat to his official face, “there’s economic opportunity in everything, and it’s our task to find it. And in your case to ensure we account for it correctly, which I will say you achieve impeccably.” I smile vaguely; he goes on his way. I haven’t finished considering my next move, but it seems to start with getting out of here. I walk back to the stairwell. Someone’s already moved the box out of the way. I don’t see anyone in the stairs this time, even though I descend absurdly slowly, even stopping at one point and counting to twenty. I return to my office. Kayla intercepts me, saying I’m late for my meeting. I say: “Tell them I can’t come, I got caught up in an emergency.” She says: “Isn’t this meeting being held to deal with an emergency? It just got scheduled yesterday.” “We’re not the fire brigade,” I say. “If we think have so many emergencies, then it must be a problem of definition. We’ll take the things we currently call emergencies and redefine them as important. Then we’ll take the things we currently call important and redefine them as not important. I think that should open up a lot of time.”
Kayla and I get on adequately, but I don’t think she really likes me; she considers my behaviour to be forced and unnatural, and she doesn’t understand why I don’t have children, or a car, or a house, or any of the things that appear to define her existence. She thinks jokes are unseemly in adults, and that all laughs should emanate solely from stories about goofy kids or incompetent husbands, or from the same videos that everyone else is watching on YouTube; if I say something she doesn’t understand, she can only process it by forcing it into those frames of reference. She says now: “That’s what you try to do with kids too. Everything’s an emergency to them. You can’t reason with them and tell them it isn’t. Well, they’re only kids.” This doesn’t give me much to work with. I say: “And most of us in this group are only accountants. Is that a step forward or a step back from playing with Lego? For me it’s a step forward, but only because I came from a deprived childhood, and the only Lego I had access to was the occasional brick donated by charity.” She asks blankly: “Does that mean you’re going to the meeting or not going to it?” I say: “I’m not going. I’m not going to any of my meetings today. Tell them anything you like. Tell them I went to the Lego store. We have a Lego store in this city don’t we?”
“The biggest one is at Vaughan Mills,” she says, because of course she’d know that. “It’s called the Legoland Discovery Store, or something like that. I’ve taken my kids there a couple of times.” “I can’t go to fucking Vaughan Mills,” I say flamboyantly. “I don’t travel that far outside downtown, unless it’s on a plane.” This is pretty much the truth, something else she’s never understood. Her reality is out in the suburbs: the downtown only exists for her to originate pay cheques. I view the suburbs as arbitrary, essentially meaningless places to live, and the time spent commuting to and from them as pure waste, negation of possibility. There’s probably no way of reconciling these worldviews. I could marry someone from another country, perhaps even someone with whom I barely shared a common language, but I couldn’t be with someone who held a fundamentally different view of what it means to live in Toronto. Kayla’s looking a little startled, so I say in a conciliatory manner: “Maybe the domineering presence of the towers is getting to me and I’m starting to crack up. You may feel free to file a report on me.” She says: “I don’t need to do that, I only want to know what to do about all these meetings.”
Kayla’s never tried to learn anything about the substance of what I and my team actually do – she only sees meeting requests and appointments and files and memos, with no knowledge of what they represent, of what it is they’re trying to maintain or to progress: for all she knows, we could be engaged in covering up a plot to bring Hitler back from the dead. But perhaps I only see the ways in which her life appears empty, not those in which it’s full to overflowing. Looking at her now, she seems entirely strange and alien, barely human at all. I think she detects something of these Seton-influenced thoughts; she looks uneasy, exasperated, even contemptuous. “Don’t do anything about the meetings,” I say. “Just tell people I’m not available and I haven’t told you why. Tell them it’ll all become clear eventually.” She asks: “Is that true? I don’t feel like things will ever become clear.” “More clear at least,” I say.
I go into my office and shut the door. I decide to plan for a quick exit. There’s nothing in here I would care about salvaging. I have a personal folder on the computer, but there’s nothing much in there; still, I copy it onto a USB drive and then drag it into the trash. All right, I think, I’m ready to go. Except why would I go now? Where would I go? Home to watch daytime television? To a bar to get drunk by myself? I could go to the airport and take the first flight out that isn’t fully booked, unless it were headed for one of the red states, in which case I’d take the flight after that. And then what? I don’t have sufficient direction or purpose to fill up twenty-four hours a day. That’s been my strength, that’s how I could focus on being the chief accounting officer, with minimal distraction, minimal regret. A day from now, I could actually be bored; a week from now, I could be bored to the point of madness. There’s no reason to rush into that.
I call Eliza. I don’t expect her to answer, but she does. “Hey you,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time you called me from work. It must be a really dull day.”
“It is,” I say. “It’s the dullest fucking day ever. What are you doing right now?”
“I’m cleaning the kitchen. You know what that means right, I’m doing everything except cleaning the kitchen. It’s really disgusting. There’s a kind of brown film over the counter. I don’t know what it is.” I say: “I wish you’d let Gyongi clean for you. She’d like the extra work. I told you I’d pay for it. It would be the most romantic thing I ever did for you, to get your place cleaned regularly.” She says: “I just don’t believe in it. I don’t believe anyone should do such menial work, it offends me.” I say: “But this is what she does for a living. Realistically, it’s not a choice for her between cleaning or working in the theatre or being an accountant. She can barely speak English and I don’t even know that she can count. She’s just a real woman trying to make a living, not to be a social statement.” We’ve been through this several times before. Eliza says: “I’m fine with you giving her the money, I just don’t want her to clean my place in return. And of course she can count, that’s ridiculous.”
I say, and I don’t know I’m going to say it until I hear myself saying it: “Anyway, I think you should leave the cleaning for another time. Come and meet me downtown. Come and meet me in a hotel. I want to make love to you. I want to meet you and fuck. Let’s do that.”
She gasps, then laughs. “Wow,” she says. She sounds impressed at least. “That’s not like you. What’s going on there? Did some hot new employee get your motor running?” I say: “I was thinking of you and this is what I want to do. I know you can manage it. Just come now.” She laughs again. “All right,” she says. “I have a lunch date at twelve thirty, but it’s downtown anyway, so I could fuck first. Sure, I could do that.”
“Good,” I say. “I’ll go find a hotel. I’ll text you the location. You’ll start heading this way?” She’s still laughing. “I need to reorient my head,” she says, “because, you know, I was thinking about cleaning the kitchen, not about going downtown for a hotel room fuck. Should I wear anything in particular? You know, to help this become a fully-fledged fantasy.” I say: “It doesn’t matter what you wear, because I’ll only be tearing it off. Just head downtown. And by the way, I love you.” “Yeah,” she says, “I love you too.”
Of course, a conversation like this is inherently exciting, but if it was anyone but Eliza, I doubt I’d be able to follow through. I don’t have a lot of excess desire lately – my penis feels tired, in a way I haven’t bothered to diagnose. I need the right kind of preparation and foreplay, a lot of stroking and stimulation; I can’t relate to movies or shows where men seem to get instantaneously hard. Even with Eliza, I’m worried that the daylight and the unfamiliar hotel room and the other things on my mind will make it embarrassing, especially if I continue to think like this about how it might become embarrassing. But I’m committed to it now, and for now at least, I’m hard and I feel like I could run into the washroom and jerk off, which is a rare feeling for me. I leave my office and walk past Kayla, buttoning my jacket. She calls out: “Wait, are you coming back?” I say: “Yeah, probably, but don’t count on it. If you want to take the rest of the day off, go ahead.” This might strike her as the most troubling thing I’ve said so far today. She says, like a mother explaining the realities of adulthood, “I can’t take off just like that. Look at all these things I’m working on.” I don’t bother to look.
I have many hotels to choose from within walking distance. My first thought is to go to the top of the line – the Ritz Carlton or the Four Seasons – but I think Eliza will be unimpressed at the extravagance, and I’m worried they’ll be intimidating. I consider the other end of the spectrum, going to the kind of dive I wouldn’t usually be seen dead in, but feeling sordid isn’t my thing either. I think of a mid-range hotel a few blocks from my place, and I race over there, not even taking time to put in my ear phones. I tell the woman at reception I need a room for one night. I admire the pleasant blankness of her expression as she hears this and checks the system. “We don’t have a room available at the moment,” she says. “We’ll have one available at around 3 pm, if you were looking to come back this evening.” This lands as a way of filtering out people who have in mind what I have in mind. I say: “I’ve been working all night, I really need to get some sleep right now. You’re sure there’s nothing available?” I look around me; the lobby is almost completely empty, except for an old couple who look like they’ve forgotten why they’re there. “I could put a rush on the cleaning,” she says, “then it might only be half an hour.” I feel I could assure her it’s not like I’m going to bring in a hooker: you’ll see when she arrives, she’s someone you’ll be proud to have in your lobby, proud to have spreading her legs in your room. “I can’t even wait that long,” I say, “I need to go right to sleep. It’s almost like a sickness.” She apologizes; I walk out. I think of another place not so far away, a Holiday Inn. As I walk over there, I text Eliza: Still working on the location. The lobby of the Holiday Inn feels sparse and cold, more like a stage-set hotel than the real thing; the reception desk looks like I could kick a hole in it. Still, the guy seems happy to see me, and he says they have availability. “I need to check in right now,” I emphasize; he assures me that’s fine. I take my key card. One of the three elevators is out of service. I share my ride up to the fourth floor with a few staff and a cart of cleaning supplies. The card doesn’t work, so I return to reception. He reacts like this has never happened before; he couldn’t be more apologetic. I share my second ride up to the fourth floor with a different cart of cleaning supplies, even though the place hardly carries the air of being perpetually cleaned. The card works this time. The room is unquestionably a hotel room – a bed, a TV, a bathroom, a few other things not worth registering. It smells of starch and dust, perhaps of sex – I can’t tell through the odour of starch and dust – but certainly not of romance. I don’t think it will matter. I text Eliza again with the location and the room number. She hasn’t responded to my last message but I’m hoping that’s because she’s on the subway. It’s eleven o’clock; I figure she’ll be here in ten minutes or so, and then that’ll give us over an hour before she leaves for her lunch date, unless I can talk her into canceling it, as if I’d ever be the one she cancels for rather than on.
I don’t know what to do now. I don’t think I need to take a shower – I wouldn’t do that if this were happening at home. The idea just seems more prominent here because there’s almost nothing to do except take a shower. I wonder whether it would be customary to take a shower before meeting a prostitute; whether it would be customary to take two showers, before and after. I decide to stay as I am. I consider popping out to buy flowers, or booze, but I don’t want to eat into my time. I consider scanning the TV for a music channel, for background atmosphere, but this room doesn’t have any background, only foreground. I leave it off. I can’t decide how many clothes to remove, if any; whether I should rehearse the way in which I let her in, in which I lead her to the bed. The only thing I can decide on is drawing the curtains. It just makes the room seem cheesier, as if it’s for people who can’t afford a window, but I leave it like that. There’s still no response from Eliza. I wait a few minutes then text her again: R U close by? I stare at the phone, willing it to respond; it doesn’t. My mind processes possibilities: maybe her phone was stolen, or she dropped it onto the subway tracks, or she was hit by a car. I can’t believe that she forgot, or that she got distracted by something else or someone else; even she wouldn’t be that callous – I’d rather she were dead than think that. I stare at the phone for a solid ten minutes before texting her again: Where R U???!! I think about how the delay should change my strategy when she gets here, if she gets here. I’ll have to jump on her with a sense of urgency, pull her to the bed, tear off her clothes, or whatever the real-world non-rapist equivalent is of tearing off someone’s clothes. The problem is, I still don’t feel that kind of rampant energy; I’m more in the mood to take it slow and intimate. Now I’m worried the whole thing will feel misconceived and awkward; it’s certainly starting to feel more like a challenge than an opportunity. I try to focus, just to think about Eliza, naked and wet and committed to me; I think about her strutting around like a stripper, like a whore, although in practice these fantasies erode into images of her laughing at me for thinking she would ever strut around like a stripper or a whore.
I start to become agitated, pacing the room, wishing it had the dimensions to allow me to pace; staring out the window at every turn, although it faces north and it’s unlikely she’d come from that direction; clicking my fingers; pursing my lips and muttering to myself; waving my arms like windmills. I feel I need to release pressure, not sexual pressure but the inner contortions of self-pity and humiliation, and so I try whatever dumb physical move might have something to contribute to that. In fact I don’t believe at all that she dropped her phone or was hit by a car or any of that crap, because in practice that kind of thing is hardly ever the explanation, even though I can think of a recent incident where someone was hit by a car. I believe she changed her mind about it and she doesn’t have the guts to tell me. I’ve never despised her so much; the futility of our relationship has never been so clear. I assume she means this to be the end, that the only text message she’ll respond to will be the one where I say I get it and it’s over, to which I’ll get back an “All the best” or something equally anodyne. I see clearly now how everything about her that sometimes seems adventurous or free-spirited or impulsive is better understood as a manifestation of fear, indecision and superficiality. I wonder if she’s ever told me one true meaningful thing. Now I’m wishing for her not to show up, out of fear for what I’ll unload on her when she does.
I start to rehearse the lines, the inflexion, the posture, but then I sit on the bed, just wishing she’d come, and that I could take the high road, assuring her that I wasn’t worried, that I know how things come up at the last minute, and that I was calmly waiting, frustrated only because of my desire for her, which I’d tell her has never been so acute. Then I’m thinking she’ll come in right now, that she designed all of this and was perfectly timing her entrance. I open the door and look out into the corridor, to see if she’s waiting there, maybe with her ear to the door. But of course she wouldn’t be waiting there – she’d be down in the lobby or maybe out in the street, but if I take the elevator down to find her, she’ll come up at the same time in the other working elevator and she’ll think I left. I could text her to say I’m coming downstairs, but if she’s not there, if I was right and this is all calculated to injure me, it will be the most pathetic text ever sent, and she’ll be laughing about it with her friends into her old age. I close the door and lie on the bed. I feel every second go by. At least it’s experience, I tell myself. When I check the time again, it’s 12.40 pm. I wish she’d told me where she was going for lunch, so I could burst in there and make a scene to end them all, or at least to end the possibility of any future scenes involving me and her. Of course, I wouldn’t do that, but I’d probably stake out the place, perhaps intercept her afterwards. The truth is I don’t know what I’d do, or what I will do.
Anyway, I don’t text her. I think of deleting her number, or blocking it, or even of throwing my personal phone away as well. I can’t see a clear path forward. Eventually it’s after 1 pm and I leave. I don’t want to deal with reception again – I throw my card on the bed, figuring they’ll work it out. I share the elevator with a Chinese family; I take their chatter to be excitement at what’s about to unfold. The teenage girl makes eye contact with me, and doesn’t quickly look away, and I imagine it might be one of those moments for her, a tiny random incident you remember long after many more important memories have dissipated. That was the day, I imagine her saying as an old woman, when I started to realize that the darkness is always closer than you think it is, as I looked into that stranger’s tortured eyes. And yet at the same time, I imagine her saying to her grandchildren, if he’d reached out and snatched me from my parents, I think my life would have been more meaningful than it actually was; you know, considering the time I wasted on your dumbass grandfather and everything. I’d rather put money on my ability to figure out the thoughts of a teenage Chinese girl than on my ability to figure out Eliza’s.
I cross the road into St. James’s Park and walk through there very slowly. The temperature is in the high twenties by now, so the park is fairly dense with dogs, dog walkers, non-dog walkers, sunbathers, lunch-eaters, book readers who I doubt are doing much engaged reading, people who look like they have no plan or reason for being here beyond hoping the sun will make it all better. My phone rings; I reach for it so quickly that I fumble and drop it in the grass. It’s a restaurant, calling to confirm my reservation for tomorrow night; Eliza said she’d heard it was one of the best new places in town and I said I’d take her there, even though I only really like empty, unfashionable restaurants. I tell her they can cancel it. Then I start to think about grabbing lunch before going back to the office, if I go back. I seldom get very hungry; I frequently go a few days without eating much of anything. I suppose it’s another example of how I’m out of tune with my own needs and desires. I don’t get sick very much either, or maybe it’s that I’m always low-level sick and so newly-added pain and discomfort doesn’t register. Even though I only weigh about one-fifty, I often feel very heavy, or maybe it’s more that I feel dense, that I once had inner space, but it’s all gradually been filled in with figurative cement, the slowly-setting by-product of my amalgamated disregard, callousness, disconnection and wrongness. I’m not losing my hair like many men my age, or even seeing it go grey; I’m not putting on weight; my features are hardly fuller or less taut than they ever were. But these indicia of being “well-preserved” make me think of Toronto’s habit of preserving an old building’s façade, when tearing down every other part of it to build another condo tower. At street level, the subterfuge can work – you might think you’re walking past somewhere with character, with a history. But when you go inside, or you tilt your neck upward, you see it’s just more modern concrete and glass, without a foot in the past, or even a foot in the present, beyond the atypical self-referencing present of downtown Toronto. That’s often how I think of myself – the exterior might seem meaningful in some way, but it’s a promise that can never be met.
These thoughts would only make me think I didn’t deserve to eat. But I consider it rationally and I decide I may need some energy this afternoon, if only to be sure of sustaining my disappointment. This provides enough motivation to walk to the end of the park. I get a text message, but it’s from someone I don’t give a shit about. I realize I hadn’t thought about music since leaving the hotel. As soon as I become aware of this, I can’t hear anything except a sickening aural churning. I don’t know how much of it is the traffic, the infrastructure, the mass of people, and how much of it is me, the racket of my own dumb head, but either way I have to block it out. My mind goes to the Beatles, as if in some effort to reset; I always say the Beatles are the first group I remember being aware of. I don’t know if that’s true – they’d split up before I started tuning into anything – but it’s never seemed to me to be an implausible claim, and no one ever questioned it. I think I like the story of the Beatles, the improbability of such personal journeys, of so many musical doodlings becoming indelible, as much as I like the actuality of them, and I like their dumber and yet somehow equally indelible songs as much as I like the cornerstones. If anyone else had written a song called Ob La Di Ob La Da, it would have been dead on arrival. I go to the White album and listen to that track now, although I don’t find the assertion that life goes on as persuasive as I usually do. Then soon afterwards it goes on to Bungalow Bill, which belongs in that same category, at once absurdly unnecessary and inevitable. I somehow think that even if someone had never heard the White album before, or never even heard of the Beatles at all, you could play them the White album and they’d feel it in their blood if you skipped a track.
I turn off the music to enter a sandwich store. There’s no one in line – I guess the whole lunch period got away from me. I can’t be bothered to read the board – I just say I want something vegetarian. She starts to list the possibilities – the first one is tofu salad, I say I’ll take that. She starts to ask something else, whatever the following standard question would be, but then she chokes it back; I think my taciturnity may have intimidated her. She takes a few steps to relay the order to the guy in the kitchen, and he asks the question, so she comes back and asks it of me: “Any sides? We have potato salad, Caesar salad, sweet potato fries, onion rings….” She trails off. “Various others,” she adds, indicating a list somewhere. “That’s all right,” I say, “no sides. I mean, just the sandwich will be fine.”
She asks me if I want anything to drink, and I realize I really fucking do want it; I ask for an orange juice, because it’s the first thing I see, and then for a coffee as well. She asks if it’s to stay or to go and although I hadn’t even thought of staying, I decide now I’ll stay. She says she’ll bring everything over; I go and sit by the window. I’m not even ten minutes’ walk from the office, but that’s far enough away for downtown to loosen its grip – there’s more skin, less sense of the clock. There’s a patio across the street, occupied by people who look like they’re on vacation; I’m certain I never look like that. When she brings my drinks, I say: “You must sometimes look over there and wish you could join them.” Actually I could believe she’s never been out in the sun – she has an unblemished paleness that’s rather striking, now I let it strike me. She has a vaguely exotic look about her too – she could be half-Asian and half-Norwegian or something like that, although if she were actually that, I think she’d draw more confidence from her own distinctiveness. She says: “Maybe they’ll be working when I’m having fun though.” I say: “Some people have the knack of looking like they never work.” I’m talking about an ability to fully occupy their current coordinates in time and space, to make that a larger place than it could ever be if they vacated it, betraying no hint of other demands or priorities or concerns. In contrast, I’m pretty sure I always look like a guy who’s stealing time from something else, and I’m pretty sure I’ll go on always looking like that, even if I never again have anything I’m actually stealing time from. She says: “Maybe, but that’s because they’re lousy at what they do.” I’m not sure I would have reached the same conclusion, but at least it’s something to engage with. “That’s a big generalization,” I say. “Are you that good at judging people?”
She says: “I think you wanted me to say something, so I did.” She’s at least twenty years younger than I am, probably more like twenty-five. I say: “I guess I seemed bad-tempered when I came in. I was having an extremely bad day. Do you want to know about it?” “Sure,” she says, “I’ve got time.” I say: “First of all, I effectively got fired, because they think I committed a crime, which is actually true, although it’s not a crime anyone really gives a shit about. Actually I committed a much more serious crime, but I’m thinking I’ll probably get away with that one. And just now I was going to meet my girlfriend in a hotel, because I have one, a girlfriend, I’m not married, I was going to meet my girlfriend in a hotel for a romantic lunchtime, you know what I mean when I say that, and she didn’t show up. She didn’t text or anything. I waited for over an hour and a half. So you can imagine how that made me feel.”
She says: “At least you didn’t get told you have cancer.” After that she has to think it over. She says: “You look like a pretty normal person to me, but now you’re telling me you’ve committed two crimes. Does that mean almost any normal-looking guy has probably done the same thing, or is it just my luck I had an outlaw walk in?” She gets called to the kitchen before I can answer. She returns with my sandwich. I say: “I wish I knew. There’s the big collective happy dance we carry out during the day, and there’s our private contorted hell. The most horrifying thing in the world is that we all know the distance between them. Living within the law, morality, ethics, the calm disposition that makes you a good Canadian, it’s just not enough to make a life. We suppress our private natures for the good of the whole. But individually, we can’t help fighting the suppression, because we know we only live once, and we crave the thrills and the stories, and we usually believe we’ll get away with it, because the truth is we usually do. For instance, guys maintain secret sex lives for decades, with hookers or whatever, without it ever falling apart on them.”
She processes all this very calmly. “Do they?” she asks. I say: “They must. It’s an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but no one ever admits to knowing anything about it. Because it’s a perfectly maintained secret.”
She says: “You should eat your sandwich. It’s hard to think of your private hell on an empty stomach.” I try to pick up the sandwich and it falls apart in my hands. She laughs and brings more napkins. “Happens every time,” she says. “We urgently need to redesign this sandwich. But we don’t have that kind of brain power here. So what are you going to do now?”
“I suppose I’ll go back to the office,” I say. “Like I said, I’m not fired yet. I’d like to see how the final chapter plays out. Is that you meant by what I’ll do now, or did you mean the rest of my life?” She shrugs. “Perhaps I’ll try to do something more in tune with my private hell,” I say, “once I figure out what that is.” I’m eating the tofu salad with a fork, mostly leaving the bread. “What’s your life?” I ask, “other than this.” She says: “I don’t know yet. I’ve mostly just drifted along. For a long time I was living with a guy and that held me back. Good thing I couldn’t have kids, or that he couldn’t, or I’d really be held back.”
This doesn’t feel like a natural place for a serious conversation: it’s a white, cubical space that feels like it was assembled in a laboratory, so sterile that anyone should be happy to eat off the floor, and I imagine the harshness of the light must make my face look like the inside of a toilet bowl. I see about ten signs and logos emphasizing freshness and goodness and organic-ness, but you just know that in its own way it relies on as heavy and morally oblivious a supply chain as any fast food shithole. There are lots of places in the same vein, but perhaps this one pushes the concept too far, considering I’m the only one here. I tell her I don’t have kids either, hoping she doesn’t immediately think it wouldn’t only be because no one would ever have fucked me. She’s surprised by that; when I ask why, she says: “I just think of older guys in suits as having kids. Even if they’re gay. It’s just part of the package.”
“I don’t have a big house or a car either,” I say. She says: “Wow, so you’re actually really poor like me?” I say: “No, that’s not it. I just live the life I want. Or at least in those respects – those were the easy ones to figure out. The intimate stuff is harder.” Another customer comes in; she goes back to the counter. I finish my sandwich, or as much of it as I’m going to. The other customer is the direct opposite of me; he questions her for several minutes as if he’s been on a lifelong quest for the perfect sandwich, and it’s all come down to this. In the end he settles for ham and cheese; which seems to me a choice someone could make in five seconds. He orders it to go, but still needs to wait a few minutes. It feels unnatural that I’m hanging around; I wonder if I should go. Then she reappears at my table. “Here’s your cookie sir,” she says, “and your coffee refill.” “Thanks,” I say, sounding very buoyant I think, “I’d forgotten I’d ordered those.” “I didn’t forget,” she says. She goes back to the counter. The guy leaves; a couple come in. They order quickly and sit as far away from me as they can; that is, not very far away, but they’re completely enveloped in each other and their phones, and will never notice anything I do. Eventually she returns and asks about the cookie. “It was great,” I say, “and I don’t even like sweet things usually.” “That’s ridiculous,” she says, “who doesn’t like sweet things? Oh, I know, someone who never wanted kids. I guess you don’t like kittens either.” “Maybe not,” I say, “but I like puppies.”
She says: “I always had dogs when I was growing up. I live by myself now in a tiny place, so I can’t have one. I mean, technically I could, but you know what I mean.” She adds: “How about another cookie?” She doesn’t wait for the answer; she goes to get it. “By the time I’m done you’ll be an addict,” she says, putting it before me like a hash brownie. “I eat too many of these myself.” She does have a fleshiness about her that I can envisage getting out of control one day; I can’t tell whether she’s trying to control it now. I guess I have a conventional prejudice against people at the higher end of the weight range, especially as sexual partners. I’m surprised that I’m thinking of her as that, even fuzzily. She’s a much younger woman, so it ticks off that part of the conventional dream, but she’s not conventionally trophy-ish. Maybe I’d rather have her as a friend. That would be a glorious thing, at this time in my life, to make a genuine friend who just happened to be a younger woman. I imagine us eating together, attending concerts, texting late into the night. I imagine myself in my dying years, with her putting aside all other priorities to care for me. I say: “Maybe I’ll stay here all afternoon and eat cookies.” She says: “You’ll be by yourself then, we close at three.” “Good to know,” I say, “what do you do afterwards?” She says: “Sometimes I take a break and then go to my other job in a bar. I’m not doing that today though. So I guess I’ll go home and watch TV. I’m working my way through Orange is the New Black.”
“I haven’t seen that,” I say. “I don’t watch any shows at all. If I had the time I’d watch more movies. Mainly foreign ones.” She asks: “Aren’t there enough English ones?” “No,” I say flatly, “there just aren’t enough of them.” She says: “It’s no good watching things by yourself. All the fun is in talking about them. I usually watch Orange at the same time as my friend and we text about it the whole way through.” “Interesting,” I say, “I’ll have to find someone to do that with when I’m watching Jean-Luc Godard.” As if this were an admission of something, she says: “Are you going to tell me about these crimes? I mean, is it murder, or more like jaywalking?” “A bit of both,” I say. “One of them I could explain in a few seconds, the other one maybe not at all.” She says: “Are you going to go to jail?” I say: “I’ll only accept that if I can find someone who’ll wait for me.”
She says: “I need to get back to work, I need to clean up, start shutting things down.” I say: “I guess I should go too. But I was thinking of coming back. I mean, today even. Not for another cookie. I thought we might continue our conversation.” She says: “You know that’s weird right? We probably don’t have anything in common. You’re probably only interested in talking to me because you’re in a hole of some kind and you don’t know how to get out.” She says this like an actress departing from her script to deliver a mild rebuke to a fellow actor. I say: “I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then I must be putting a lot of trust in you, to help me climb out of that hole.” She says: “Maybe you just think I’ll climb in there with you.”
I say: “I live pretty close by. It’s a nice place. I’m thinking I might give you the keys. You can go there and hang out, enjoy a change of scene.” She says: “That’s pretty weird. I have my own place. It’s not close by, but at least it has all my stuff in it.” I say: “Go and get some of your stuff and bring it back downtown. Stay a night or many nights. You can have your own room. You can have the whole place if you want. It would be good for me. If you think it might be good for you, then you should do it.”
She goes back behind the counter. Another customer comes and goes; the couple leave, their laughter hanging in the air for several minutes afterwards. I go up to her. “My keys,” I say, putting them down like a stake in a game. “This thing gets you through the outer door and into the elevator, this is the key to the door. I’ve written down the address here,” and I put that down too. “You can go there now or later or tomorrow or never. You can mail these back to me or throw them away. It’s up to you.”
“This is a bit fucked-up,” she says. “People don’t hand their keys to a stranger.”
“No,” I say, “and people are generally miserable and worn out and scared. But it’s up to you.”
“It sounds like it’s up to me but it also feels like you’re manipulating me into something. Like one of those magic shows where someone guesses what you’re thinking of but you know it’s only because he somehow put it in your head in the first place.”
“Well sometimes there’s no obvious line between manipulation and persuasion.” But then I also feel I might have fallen prey to such a magician; that I had an arbitrary premise forced on me – talk this random-selected woman into something neither of you would ever have thought of – and now I have to make it work or else…or else something. “I just see a possibility,” I say. “I don’t even know of what. I’d like to find out. But you have to tell me what to do. Except it can’t be, you know, let’s meet for coffee in two weeks. It’s too fast-moving a situation.”
The phone rings; she goes into the back. I notice a guy there, sitting on a stool, reading a big book. I guess he could have heard all or most of what we’ve been saying, if he cared, but he plainly isn’t listening. She says: “That was the owner, he calls every day about this time, just so he can be disappointed every day I guess.” I indicate her colleague, with what I intend as a quizzical expression. She says: “He tunes everything out. He lives in the Second World War. He has some theory he’s trying to prove, I forget what it is.” The break and the digressions give events the feeling of a reset. She says, almost playfully: “So about these crimes. You going to tell me what they are?”
I go into my phone, to one of the local news websites. I scroll down and find the story right away. I glance at it before showing it to her; they haven’t added anything new since this morning. She reads it carefully, then goes back to the start to read it again. “So what does this have to do with you?” she asks. “You don’t look like you were pushed under a car.”
“Do I look like I did the pushing?” I asked. Her eyes widen; she reads it a third time before handing back the phone. “You pushed someone under a car?” I nod. She says: “Like, in self-defense or something?” “No,” I say, “if it had been self-defense I wouldn’t consider myself a criminal. It was unprovoked, unnecessary. He was just one of these guys that latch onto you in the street. Annoying, maybe, but not dangerous. I didn’t need to do what I did.”
She’s studying me very carefully, as if she has permission now to disregard all the usual rules of personal space or propriety; it feels like she’s trying to memorize the exterior of my eyeballs and of the surrounding skin, so she can describe them in detail to a sketch artist. “But at the time,” she says, “you felt you had to? Or the car came out of nowhere?” It’s inevitable she expects to find mitigation, to find that the story carries a blunt edge, not a sharp one. “Not at all,” I say. “I could have shaken him off easily. I picked the right place to do it, I positioned myself, I waited for the car, I pushed him, I ran, I did everything I could not to be picked up by any cameras, I went home and slept like I always do. Then I woke up today and didn’t think about it much then either. No more than other events of yesterday.”
“All right,” she says. “And this is something you do often. Because it’s the kind of person you are.” “No,” I say, “it’s something I’ve never done before. As for what kind of person I am, I’m waiting to find out.”
She asks: “Did you want to kill him or just to scare him, or to hurt him?”
I say: “Pushing someone under a car isn’t that precise an exercise. I had no way of knowing how it would turn out. It was an exercise in randomness. It was only pure unlikely chance that I was out so late wandering around, that I met him and he latched on to me, that I got the idea, that I acted on the idea. If I’d known how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“So that’s fine then,” she says.
I say: “You can ask me as many questions as you want and I’ll answer them as honestly as I can. The answers may not be as good as the questions.”
She asks for the phone and reads it a fourth time, seemingly convinced she can make it come out a different way. “Well,” she says, “it’s interesting that you told me.” She looks displeased by that choice of word, but I’m sure it was the best she could do. “Who else have you told?”
“No one,” I say. “There’s no one else I could possibly tell.”
She says: “What about the other crime? You said there were two. Or do I really want to know.” I say: “The other one’s almost like comic relief by comparison. I’m being investigated by the securities commission for giving someone inside information about the company I work for. He bought shares and then sold them quickly for a profit. It’s not allowed by securities law because it gives people with connections an unfair advantage.”
“I should be so lucky as to be able to buy shares,” she says, “no matter how much money someone told me I could make. I don’t even know how to do it. Well, I guess I could go online and find out, but I never have. So you’re guilty of that also?”
“It’s basically true. I mean, it was all kind of subtle and implied, but I did let him know it would be a good time to buy shares, which I guess is the key point. I don’t think they’ll be able to prove it though. They open a lot of these investigations but most of them die along the way. Personally I don’t think it’s much worse than crossing against a red light. Without mowing someone over I mean.” I go on: “The only problem is, not everyone agrees. The phrase is, there’s no smoke without fire. For those people, even a hint of misbehavior is enough to put you over the line. That’s why it looks like I’m being fired. That’s why I’m not at any of my meetings, not returning any of my calls, lingering here talking to you.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’re getting a lot of calls,” she says, looking at the phone. I tell her: “This is my personal phone, I threw the work one away. So it tells you how little I have going on outside work. But the work phone is always busy.”
As I speak, I’m reflecting on how I’m able to tell her all this, on how I maybe have to tell her. I’d told Eliza about the commission’s investigation, but I swore to her I was entirely innocent. I never concluded whether I’d tell her about the other thing. I still haven’t heard from her, and I wonder now whether it’s because she somehow found out about it, without whatever alleviating spin I would have given it. That could only have happened if they – the forces, the authorities, the powers of justice - found out who I am, and they’re looking for me, and they somehow talked to her. But in that case she would have given them my number, presumably would have told them where to find me. Maybe it means she found out and they, the forces, didn’t find out, and for now she’s keeping it to herself, bearing it in appalled silence. I don’t know how that would have happened, but when such a disruption gashes down the centre of your life, who can anticipate the full extent of the destabilization? Or maybe I’m guilty of a third crime, a crime to which I’m currently still blind, and she’s punishing me for that. And if it wasn’t that one, it would be a fourth crime, and after that a parade of them stretching in a disreputable line to the moral horizon and beyond.
She says: “I think maybe you’re just a con man, that this thing with the car is nothing to do with you. Maybe you’re one of those guys who puts on his suit as if he’s going to work, then just hangs around the parks and the coffee shops all day, trying to get attention. What do you think of that?”
“I think you could be describing me in six months’ time.”
“Or maybe you have a hidden camera on me and this is all going to be on TV. Or more likely on some super-shitty web series.”
“I think in that case I’d be trying to make it funnier.”
“It’ll probably be funny enough by the time you edit it and add in the snarky commentary.”
“So I should just leave then,” I say.
“Not necessarily. I don’t really have anything to lose. What do I care if I end up looking dumb on some shitty web series.” She certainly doesn’t seem anxious, or even overly interested; her demeanour is becoming blanker as our exchange continues, as if some aspect of this has already become inevitable enough not to need her active engagement with it. “I don’t really know what you expect though,” she says. “Whatever your problem is, your problems are, I don’t think I can do a lot to help you out.”
“You can be another person who’s present,” I say.
It’s almost three o’clock. “Close enough,” she says. She locks the door, flips the sign around. “Wrap it up,” she tells the guy. He almost seems reluctant to close his book. Maybe for both him and for me, for all its sterility and lack of character, this place is a kind of refuge. He puts the book away and gets to work, closing up containers, tossing utensils into the sink. It doesn’t look like there’s a lot to do. “I’ll be another half hour here,” she says. “I’ll take your keys, I’ll go to your place. I could use a change of scene. Anything to eat and drink there?” “You’ll find the alcohol easily enough,” I say. “You might not find much food.” I would give her some cash, but I barely carry it now. I give her one of my credit cards and write the PIN on a napkin. “Use this to buy whatever you want,” I say. “Food, clothes, whatever you need. It has a limit so you can’t buy a car with it, but that aside, don’t worry.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in me,” she says. “Or you’re conning me. You guarantee this is an empty apartment, I’m not going to walk into some weird mess and be framed for one of your other crimes?” Except for building management and the cleaner, who’s not coming this week, the only other key is with Eliza, but I’ve never known her to use it in my absence, so I can promise the apartment will be empty. “Change your mind at any point you like,” I say. “Like I said, leave the key at the desk, or throw it away, leave the card there or throw it away, I’ll cancel it eventually.” The guy from the back is tuning in to our conversation, now his attention has been liberated. I stop to look in his direction; we make eye contact; he darts out of sight like a park squirrel. “Hey man,” I call out, “it’s all right. You can weigh in. You might see this clearer than I do.” He reappears. “I’m sorry,” he says, “it’s just interesting to see how different families are.” I ask him what he means. He says: “You’re her uncle or her cousin or something right? You’re letting her stay in your place. I thought it was pretty cool. Everyone in my family has no money, and if they do, they’re assholes about it.”
She says: “Does he look like my uncle or my cousin? We just met. He just got this crazy idea in his head and I’m crazy enough to go along with it.” “Wow,” he says, “you never even tell me what you do in the evening, and then all of a sudden you’re hooking up with this older dude.” She says: “I’m not hooking up with him, I’m just doing him a favour and he’s doing me one.” He says: “I told you, I think it’s all good.” Addressing me, he says: “I’ll do you some favours myself, if you ever think of any.” She says: “Just finish up so I can go where I’m going and you can go back to jerking off with your book.” It seems a little harsh to me, but he takes it amiably. He has the look of someone who if he ever finds the right direction, will follow it forever, like a soldier who doesn’t care that the rest of the army has deserted him. I say to her in a low voice: “He actually could do something for me though.” Irritated, she says: “Why don’t you hand out assignments to everyone who walks by?” I realize I’m already diluting whatever singular pleasure she’s taking from what I’ve given her. “I don’t mean he could help me like you could help me,” I say. “I’m thinking, maybe, the equivalent of asking him to collect the mail.” “Whatever,” she says. “I need to focus on this.” She sits and loses herself in the computer; it’s like being dismissed from a board meeting.
I wander into the back. “Hey,” I say, “I’m Kevin.” It only occurs to me then that where it seemed entirely natural to transact with her on the basis of no names, right up to giving her the key to my place and probably beyond, I don’t see it that way with him. Maybe it’s because he just doesn’t occupy his piece of time and space as fully as she does, and so I need a name to help arbitrarily flesh it out. “I’m Ryan,” he says. I say: “I think I know a lot of Ryans.” Then I amend that to: “Actually I probably don’t know a single Ryan in the flesh. It’s a name that shows up a lot on correspondence from law firms. You get an email copied to twenty people you’ve never heard of, and one of them’s always named Ryan.” Obviously, this is too situation-specific a joke for him to get anything out of it, if it’s a joke at all. He says: “Most people connect it to Ryan Gosling, if they connect it to anyone. Actually though, my mom named me after this other actor, Ryan O’Neal. She says he was already a has-been when I was born, but she liked him anyway. Love Story was her favourite old movie when she was growing up. Know who I’m talking about?”
“Certainly,” I say. “To me, if I was alive when it came out, it’s not truly an old movie. Love Story came out in 1970 when I was two. I can remember a few Ryan O’Neal movies. What’s Up Doc. Paper Moon. The Driver.” But I can see that his knowledge of and interest in this piece of family history stops at what he’s told me already. I might as well be reciting old Aboriginal chants. “I’ve also seen a few Ryan Gosling movies,” I say, reassuringly. “Were you serious when you said you’d do me a favour?” “Sure,” he says. “Once I finish this, I’m not doing anything that can’t wait, probably forever.” I say: “I’ll wait outside. Take your time.” She doesn’t look up as I walk past, but I’m not worried about losing her.
I put on my music, continuing with the Beatles for a while, and then switching to Talking Heads. I don’t know much about Talking Heads, except that they grew out of the same general ground as Blondie and the Ramones, out of New York’s most socially uneasy and culturally fertile period, but they always meet my most important criterion, of being unprecedented before or since. There’s an uneasy jitteriness to them, embodied by David Byrne’s presence, but also a mythical underlying flowing permanence; listening now to “Once in a Lifetime,” for the five hundredth or thousandth time, I register again both the pervasive disembodiment of all those questions about the beautiful wife and the beautiful home, and the intermingled sense of freedom, of a water capable of holding you up, of things being the same as they ever were; the song at once occupies a deeply uncertain now, and an always that’s predictable for better and for worse. I could happily listen to it every day, if not for all the other songs that I could also happily listen to every day.
When Ryan comes outside, I’m staring at the ground, or into the hell below that, and he startles me. “Talking Heads,” I explain as I put the earphones away. He says: “What’s that, a political podcast or something?” It’s hard to answer such questions without seeming condescending or antiquated or both; hard to talk solely about the glories of Talking Heads without seeming to implicitly belittle the questioner for not knowing all of it already. I decide not to try it now; to prove my relevance by focusing on him instead. “They’re a band,” I say, “but it doesn’t matter now. Tell me about you. She indicated…what’s her name by the way…,” as if I’d forgotten it. “Cindy,” he says. I ask: “Short for Cynthia or just Cindy?” “How the hell would I know,” he responds. I go on: “She said you were studying the Second World War, she said you had a theory on it.” “It’s not really a theory,” he says, in the tone of someone who has to swat away such girlish misconceptions every day of his life. “It’s because my grandfather was a Nazi, and my dad’s obsessed with Hitler too. I’m always worried I’ll go the same way. So I read about it a lot, to remind myself what an evil fuckfest it all was.”
“That’s one of the more interesting explanations I’ve heard for reading a particular book.” He says: “I never told Cindy that, I didn’t think she’d get it. I thought you’d probably get it, as much as anyone would.” He tells me his grandfather was in the SS and was blown up in the 1944 by the French Resistance. “Obviously for most purposes the family brushes it under the carpet,” he says. “They say he was just an innocent kid who got drafted and didn’t know what he was doing. But he was like a fucking cheerleader for Hitler. He thought Hitler was God. It’s all in his letters and his diaries. My dad still has all those. My dad’s a creepy motherfucker too. He has his own website where he posts his rants about how racial dilution is ruining our country and all that kind of crap. None of it makes any fucking sense. So every time I have a racist thought, and you know everyone has them, I get hyper fucking scared that I’m starting to swing toward our proud family tradition of bigotry. I’d rather kill myself than end up like my dad.”
I ask about his mother. “She left when I was a kid. She says my dad didn’t talk much about his Nazi heritage when they met, but once they got married, it was like he exhaled and out it came. She’s a hard right conservative too, she worships Trump so that’s one thing they have in common, but denying the Holocaust was too much even for her. And then he found another woman who’s like a quieter version of him. This just shows you can get anything online, even your own dedicated Nazi bitch. The worst thing is I still live with them. It’s not even like I live in the basement, they live in a condo. So I have to listen to this shit every day of my life. He knows I don’t agree with a fucking word he says, but it just means he goes further out of his way to pound it into my head. So every day, I make sure I do something to keep it out.”
Of course, this completely changes my view of him; now he seems to me pained and pilgrim-like. “I’m sure you’re too hard on yourself,” I say. “Human minds aren’t so malleable, especially not alert adult ones.” He says: “I don’t know about that. Look at all the fucking Trump supporters. If you’d told them three or four years ago they’d vote for someone who acts and talks like that asshole, with the same kind of putrid personal history, they would have told you to go fuck yourself. But look at them now. You can say they’re all jerks but some of them must have some kind of brain. So if a supposed decent Christian can become a Trump supporter, I can become a racist piece of shit.” He’s staring straight ahead, but I feel his eyes gleaming with emotion. We’re just a block now from my office building. They say Toronto is as diverse as any city on the continent, but at this moment, I only see white people, smug in their sense of their own necessity. I say: “You must be wondering what I want you to do.” “Not so much,” he says, “I thought you were just bored and looking for ways to kill time.” I say: “I want you to go to my office for me. Talk to my assistant, get my messages, anything I need to know. That’s it. I’ll give you, what, a hundred bucks.”
“You shouldn’t wave your money around,” he says. “I know that’s nothing to you, but it takes me like six or seven hours to earn that. More than that probably.”
“You’re right. I’ve lost perspective, I lost it years ago. Just this once, you may as well take advantage of it.”
“What’s the catch? Why can’t you go up there yourself?”
“I’m going to be fired. It was going to happen anyway, and by spending the afternoon like this I’m not doing anything to stop it. In effect it’s probably already happened. I can live with the decision, but I don’t want to face the personal humiliation.”
“What if they don’t believe me?”
“Why would a random guy come in off the street and try to steal my messages? I’m not that important.” Still, I conclude he has a point. I record a message on his phone, for him to play to Kayla: “Hey Kayla, this is Kevin, it’s just after three o’clock on June the 21st, I’m not able to come back today but I’m sending my friend Ryan, this is just to confirm you can give him my messages, give him anything you have to give me, thanks Kayla, any questions you have for me, give them to Ryan, thanks again.”
“The business world is even more fucked up than I thought it was,” says Ryan. “No wonder the planet is being raped and pillaged.” He asks: “What are you being fired for? Just in case that’s relevant to this assignment.” I assure him it’s not relevant. “White collar crime,” I say. “Excessive raping and pillaging.” We cover the remaining distance to the building. I ask him if he wants his hundred dollars now. “I’ll get it on the other side,” he says. “I won’t feel I earned it but at least I’ll know I did something.” We cover a few more logistics. I tell him I’ll be in the vicinity; I’ll see him when he comes back out. He goes through the revolving doors, like a hiker taking his first step onto the Appalachian trail. I almost believe he’ll never make it back out.
I walk to the corner to use the ATM, then I cross the street and enter another lobby; I can sit inconspicuously there, watching the lobby of my building, and waiting for Ryan to come out. I check my phone again. Nothing from Eliza. At some point I received two voice mails from numbers I don’t recognize, but I don’t listen to them. If I had any remaining chance of a future at the company, I’m sure this stunt will choke it off. I’ve already moved on. I’m thinking perhaps I’ll put my name out there as a consultant. I’ve made lots of contacts over the years. The method of my leaving here may be a stain on my reputation, but eventually it’ll be forgotten, or understood as an aberration. There aren’t that many people who can do what I do; there aren’t that many who would want to, but we’re needed, maybe not by regular people, but by the distended engine of corporate compliance. Rationally, I don’t think the cause of corporate accounting in Toronto can afford to let me fall away. I think I could do much worse than I’ve done, and still come out a survivor.
I see Seton, the believer in aliens among us, exit from the elevator, cross the lobby, come out into the street. He’s not leaving for the day; maybe he’s running an errand, or just taking a break. For now though he just stands there, almost perfectly still, as if he’d come out for the sun and the air and the noise, and doesn’t even mind that he’s on one of the busiest downtown intersections, with people pushing past him from north and south, impatient at this breach of sidewalk etiquette, because everyone knows you don’t just stand there, not unless you’re a dumb visitor. I wonder whether he’s the alien and this is his way of recharging, or whether sometimes he just forgets his purpose and has to come out here to reestablish his connection with home. Perhaps everything he told me was a disguised cry for help, or an invitation, or a warning. I watch him until he finally decides on something, and then walks very slowly up Bay Street, not like someone who ever plans on arriving anywhere.
I see one of my staff come outside and light a cigarette. I had no idea she smoked. I did know she goes to the gym at lunchtimes. She doesn’t look very happy with herself. I could be witnessing her falling off a long ride on the wagon. I imagine my unexplained absence is destabilizing everyone on my team. Perhaps I’d be forgiven for imagining everything is about me, considering that not long from now, nothing will be. She half-finishes the cigarette, fumbles with some breath strips, goes back inside.
I wait for half an hour, much longer than I thought likely. Then I see Ryan enter the lobby. He’s accompanied by a man I don’t know, in a brown suit. Ryan looks frustrated, unamused. They come out into the street. Ryan’s looking around for me; he raises an arm and waves, turning from left to right. The man turns with him. I slide down in the chair I’m occupying and then move to hide behind it. Some wretched busybody stops to look at me, follows my eye-line, sees them across the street, waves at them, points down at me. I store away a wish to see her again one day, to push her under another car, or worse. The man across the street reacts, looking for a break in the traffic. I get to my feet and run. There’s an escalator in the lobby, going down to the underground path, and to one of its busiest spots – a large food court in proximity to a subway entrance. I have a good head start, multiple choices of direction and plenty of people to duck behind, so his chances of catching me are minimal. Still, I don’t take any chances – I move quickly to lose myself, past the displays of cosmetics and cellphones and financial services and sushi and shoes, in above-ground terms heading a block north and then another block or two west, until taking another escalator up to another lobby, another chair. I sit there, reflecting how quickly I adapted to the state of having to run for my life on a daily basis.
I assume the man was from the police, waiting for me to return; he must have descended on Ryan, extracting the little that Ryan had to share about me. It would have been more astute, I think, for Ryan to come out alone, to draw me out of hiding. But I don’t suppose they deal with such situations every day. I’m sure Ryan thinks I tricked him, but I didn’t anticipate anything like this, and I don’t know how to explain it. Insider trading offences don’t rise so quickly to this kind of drama, so the police must be here for the attempted murder, or whatever they’re calling it. I’m quite impressed they found me so quickly; I may reassess my entire notion of the relative fallibility of law enforcement. I search on my phone again, but there aren’t any updates. It shouldn’t be surprising if one’s personal problems aren’t being updated for the whole world to track, but on this occasion I feel it’s a big, disappointing hole, just waiting to be filled with confusion. Well what the fuck am I meant to do now, I ask myself, aware that the question is hitting the same part of my brain that the accounting problems go to, not the part that processes and responds to personal crises and dramas, if my brain even holds such a place. When we deal with accounting problems, we rely heavily on materiality to save us from the small stuff – for a company like ours, it doesn’t much matter (for some purposes anyway) if the numbers are off by a few tens of thousands; a big bank or conglomerate might not even sweat the millions. I’ve been moving within a materiality-influenced world for so long that I’ve lost all sense of financial precision in my own life, and so perhaps of any kind of precision. It's hard to think any differently now, but I know I have to. Every move I make now may carry permanent, unalterable consequences, and not just in some abstract butterfly effect way. I could very easily be facing humiliation, ruin and pain now. Indeed, at this moment, I’m not sure there’s any way of avoiding those consequences, other than suicide. Again, I analogize to situations at work, to the times when there didn’t seem to be any solution to a particular challenge, and yet we worked our way towards one. But I can’t forget how materiality eased the way in all those cases.
I sit for twenty minutes, monitoring the street. I half-expect to see the area cordoned off, to have tracker dogs and bazookas trained on me, but of course I’m not quite that great a public threat. I check the news several times, still with no update. It’s been a violent summer – the murder rate is running about double what it was last year, and we’re all being encouraged, more or less as a civic duty, to get anxious about gangs and guns. A one-off incident like this, without even a traumatized kid or outraged mother or disrupted quiet street, shouldn’t rank too heavily in the competition for law enforcement resources. But I suppose it would be naïve to think the problem will go away. On one level, even if they find me, even if there’s no doubt the hands pushing him into the road were mine, it’ll be his word against mine; I might plead self-defense, irrational fear. In another time and place, I’d easily be a more credible witness than he is. But it’ll be easy to establish that I was behaving unusually in the run-up to the incident, and they might have camera footage that works against me. Perhaps I can present my behavior today as a manifestation of shock at what I’d been forced into doing. I might say I was in denial for the first couple of hours, and then it all came crashing in on me, and I’ve been unable to function rationally since then. It might work. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and Speedy will have amnesia. I suppose that happens less often in life than in fiction though.
Even if that works, it’s only at the end of a long trudge through interrogation and I suppose at least some period of incarceration and public disgrace and the pillaging of my bank account and very likely a much reduced life after it’s all over. I certainly wouldn’t have done what I did if I’d anticipated all of that. It wasn’t even that great a momentary thrill. I don’t know what I was thinking. I laugh out loud at the inadequacy of that self-rebuke. Oh well, I tell myself, there’s no point crying over spilt milk. I laugh out loud at that too. Someone turns to look at me. I stare at my phone, benevolently shaking my head as if at an amusing message. And I see on there what I saw thirty years ago, the woman and her kid on the crosswalk, and what I’ve seen so many times since then, a world in which the only thing to know about me, in which the only thing I knew about myself, was that I killed them, and should have died myself, and yet lived on, day by unbearable day.
I call my home phone. I don’t know if Cindy will feel she should answer, if she’s even there, but I call four times in succession and she picks up, with the most tentative hello I’ve ever heard. “Good,” I say, “you made it there. Hope it works for you.”
“I love it,” she says. “You have a great place. It feels weird being here, but it’s great.”
“You have everything you need?”
“I don’t know what I need. I don’t know why I’m here. But I guess it’s all good.”
“There’s no one else there, no one looking for me?”
“You have voice mails on your phone, I can see the light flashing.”
“I can’t remember how to check them remotely. I’ll do it later, maybe.”
“Are you heading back here?”
“I think so,” I say. “Things got a little complicated. I mean, even allowing how complicated they are.”
“Did Ryan help you out?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to talk to him yet. I know he tried.”
“He didn’t end up under a car too did he?”
“He didn’t end up under a car,” I say. “All right,” she says. She asks if she can have a glass of wine. I tell her to drink as much as she wants – it’s all cheap stuff anyway. “Smoke weed if you want,” I say, “although you won’t find any in the house.” “That’s what I thought,” she says. “That’s all right, I don’t need it.”
I end the call. It’s after four o’clock. I mean to head for home, but I feel it would be like leaving a concert before the encore, something I would never do. I feel I’ve fucked up something very basic. The reason for walking out on something should be to avoid having to think about it anymore, but my speculations about the office are clogging my thoughts like a wad of psychic chewing gum. I suppose it’s because I contravened another basic rule and threw too many balls into the air at the same time. But at least I’ve diagnosed the problem quickly. I decide I’ll settle for even a slight reduction in my current uncertainty. I start to make a call, but then I stop, reflecting that I’ve never given my personal number to anyone at work, and maybe should protect it from them now. I go back underground to look for a pay phone. I can visualize the location of just about anything down here: I immediately know where I’d go to get lingerie or orchids or Australian meat pies or board games or wigs, but I don’t have any idea where to find a pay phone, or if they even exist anymore. I put my ear buds back in and continue with Talking Heads. I swing my arms a bit, click my fingers, try to treat this as a stroll, a calming exercise in subterranean birdwatching. In the end I come across a couple of phones, at the entrance to a corridor no one needs to do down, except to reach a particular elevator. One of them is occupied. The other is out of order, so I have to wait. The woman before me is laughing and nodding, entirely immersed in the conversation; the pay phone ought to use her as an ad for the pleasures of old-fashioned stationary communication. I wait through two entire songs. After that I shift my position so she can see me waiting, but she just doesn’t care, and I wait for five more minutes.
I call Cristina, although I only make that decision as I’m placing the call. Perhaps I think our conversation this morning, and her own workplace problem, will make her particularly empathetic. I get lucky; she picks up. “Cristina,” I say, “it’s Kevin.” She doesn’t say anything, but I can sense her surprise. “Don’t say anything,” I say. “Are you OK to talk?”
She tells me to wait a second; I hear her office door closing. Even then, she talks in a whisper. “I’m surprised you called me,” she said. “You’ve been missing for hours.”
“Only from your point of view,” I say, trying to convey total breeziness and equanimity. “From my point of view I knew exactly where I was.”
“That’s good to know I guess,” she says. “I was only talking about my point of view. The point of view of everyone here. It’s a big panic. Everyone’s looking for you, trying to get hold of you.”
“Any reason in particular?” I ask, hoping she doesn’t detect how much depends on the answer.
“I don’t know,” she says. “They haven’t told me. I know the executives are involved in it, whatever it is. We were only told to let Cedric or HR know at once if we get hold of you.”
“Did you get the impression it was something to do with work, or was it something that arose externally?” “I don’t understand,” she says, “don’t you know what it is? Why did you disappear without telling anyone?” “It’s about connecting dots,” I say vaguely. “I may know what the dots are but not how they’re being connected.” She says: “I’m afraid I don’t know either then. At first I thought it was just because you were AWOL, because that’s out of character for you. I thought maybe they were worried that you’d had an accident, or been shot or something.” I register how incongruous that is; I doubt that anyone who leaves one of the office towers during the day has ever failed to return because of being shot. She goes on: “But then I realized they were looking for you for a reason, and I think because you were missing and not answering your phone, the reason became more important to them.”
“I threw the phone away,” I tell her. She says: “Well that doesn’t sound good.”
“I don’t think I’ll be working there anymore. It’s come to an end. Sorry I couldn’t have solved your problem with Mary first.”
She sounds genuinely upset when she speaks again, although I don’t really take it as an expression of personal loss; I think it’s more comparable to how she might react to a sad scene in a movie. “I don’t understand,” she says. “When we talked this morning you seemed so normal. Did this all happen since then? They told me you were late to a meeting and they saw you talking to a creepy guy by the elevator. Did they catch you buying drugs on the premises? That’s it isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t,” I say, “and don’t speculate on that to anyone else. He’s an innocent bystander, I don’t want him dragged into it.”
“But dragged into what?” she asks.
I say: “I promise I’ll tell you everything one day. If you’re still interested then. Things like this flare up and then they pass. I know I’ve messed things up for the team in the short term, even the medium term. It’ll take a long time for anyone else to settle in. But no one’s irreplaceable, perhaps no one’s even particularly important.”
“I don’t want to work for Chris,” she says. “He’ll never be as good as you are. I mean technically and also personally. He makes commitments and doesn’t keep them. I don’t really respect him. If he gets the job, I’ll leave. I mean it.”
Obviously I feel smugly happy about this. “People stay in jobs too long,” I say. “They say it’s an age of mobility and virtual offices, but accountants still like to find themselves a physical space with a desk and then hang on to it. I did that for too long myself.”
“So can I do anything for you?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “Just keep this between us. Maybe I’ll call again, if that’s all right.”
“But you’re not going to keep hiding, are you? I mean, what’s the point? You have to deal with whatever you’re avoiding.” I acknowledge that. I wish her a pleasant evening, a pleasant everything, and hang up. I check the news again. If the police are looking for me, they haven’t told the world about it yet. Things aren’t remotely as clear as I need them to be. I decide I don’t want to hang around at home; I’d rather be where no one will come to look for me. I call my place again; Cindy answers. “I guess you really like calling me,” she says. It sounds like she’s drinking my wine. She says: “I can handle that. I hang out here, enjoy the view, get drunk, answer the phone once in a while. I could probably take on more duties too if you need me to.”
I ask if anyone’s been there. She says: “You asked me that already. You’re obsessed with the idea of people looking for you. Maybe no one cares about looking for you, did you think of that?” “Yeah,” I said, “I considered that, and I also considered that maybe there are people who do care.” “Chill out,” she says, “no one’s looking for you.” I say: “I’m coming back there, but only to pick up some things I need, then I’m going to a hotel. You can stay there though. Enjoy the space, the wine, think about your life. Stay as long as you like.” She says: “This is all nutty. I thought you wanted me to keep you company. Now you’re just leaving me. I don’t get it. If you’re running an Airbnb you should save it for people who actually need somewhere to stay. And you should get them to pay you. You could get a lot for a place like this.” These are all good points. I say: “I didn’t invite you for any particular reason. I’m not sure what I need from you or from anyone. Right now I’m just sculpting, sticking on pieces of clay, moving them around, seeing if they suggest any particular shape.” She doesn’t try to engage with that. She asks: “Can I invite some people over? I mean, it’s great, but I might get lonely.” I tell her it’s fine as long as she doesn’t hold a wild party and wreck the place. She doesn’t seem like someone who would, but for now I’m choosing to believe anyone might be capable of anything.
I tell her I only need one thing from her in return, to pack a bag so I can pick it up and get out of there quickly. I tell her where to find the bag, in the closet in the spare bedroom, and then I direct her as she locates my laptop, a phone charger, a couple of changes of clothes, the key bathroom items. She complains that nothing in my closet has any colour, that it’s like a rack at a funeral home. “That’s not just because I’m an accountant,” I say. “Accountants often like to dress as if they were headed for the country club. I’ve never subscribed to that premise myself.”
She says: “Instead of sticking bits of human clay onto yourself, you could try to wear something that actually looks good to other people.” It stings deeper than she intends, not because I give a damn about the specific assessment, but because I can’t accommodate any further vulnerabilities now. If I can’t count on understanding, I can at least hope for support and loyalty. My silence must be persuasive, because she says: “Black always looks good, don’t worry about it.” She tells me she’s carrying the bag to the door. I fleetingly think of her as a disgruntled girlfriend throwing me out, which causes me to think of Eliza, who seems as far away now as total freedom, as distant as the ocean, albeit that in downtown Toronto you’re never far away from the lake, and that from there the Saint Lawrence Seaway allows passage to the ocean, rendering it not distant at all. Sometimes by the lake you see a massive docked cargo ship with a foreign name, most often bringing sugar to the refinery directly south of the financial district; it’s a sight at once anomalous and irrational, because we’re so plainly post-industrial, so obviously inland, not somewhere that could ever be accessed by something as ancient and cumbersome as a fucking ship, and liberating, as a testimony of unbound possibility. If unrefined sugar can travel over water from Brazil to Toronto, then there must be a route back to Eliza, and deeper into her than I was before.
I feel this so vividly that I think Cindy might be that conduit to Eliza. To another man, in the right time and place, Cindy might be the world and Eliza just a signpost or a connection, but that’s not visible to me now. I thank her for helping me; I tell her I’ll be there soon. I start walking. The street feels unfamiliar, dangerous; the people strike me as puppets that could suddenly be marshaled against me. They don’t know it though: they’re all the same as always, seeing only as far as the next block, the next meeting, the next text, the next wearying item on the schedule. I put my music back on but it’s one of those times when my thoughts are too loud, and I barely register a note. I switch it off for the last couple of blocks. It’s one of those days that only finds itself in the late afternoon; clouds dissolve and the sky exhales into a blue that feels unnaturally intense, because in the city you lose touch with the intensity of nature, and the sun reigns in unhindered, majestic yet deadly triumph. The streets hum with glowing skin: it’s wondrous, but also intimidating, because I’m overdressed, and my anxiety doesn’t help me feel any cooler. By the time I reach my street, everything about me feels wet and heavy. I take a minute in the shade to cool down. There’s a woman hanging around the front of the building with her dog, some negligible-looking thing that could lose itself in a rug. There’s a man leaning against the wall, smoking, looking like he’s taking a break from something strenuous. People come and go. I decide I’m ready; I don’t have my entry fob because I gave it to Cindy, but the concierge recognizes me and lets me in. The man who was smoking slips in behind me. Even though I’m staring directly at the sign that tells us not to let in people we don’t recognize, I think little of it; it happens all the time. He’s not paying any attention to me. The elevator is already waiting on the ground: I go inside, he does too. I press twelve, then step back for him. He waves his hand as if to say I read his mind. Even then I don’t register a threat: there are ten or eleven other units on the twelfth floor, the people in them come and go. In the street I saw threats everywhere, but I’m not in that frame of mind now. We arrive at the floor; he gets out first and seems to be walking the other way, but then he’s somehow in front of me, extending his arm to block me. I look at him, and I know he’s not a policeman, or anyone of authority; he’s unshaven and his hair is tangled, he’s wearing a stained T-shirt with some comic book character on the front, and shorts that don’t match. “Can I help you?” I ask, as if it’s necessary for me to say anything. He says: “Yes, I think so. Mr. Kevin Whitland?” “Yes,” I say, knowing the futility of lying, “who wants to know?”
He says: “I’ll tell you once we get inside.” I don’t want to let him in. “Let’s go somewhere else,” I say. “No,” he says, “you’re going to want to hear this and you’re not going to want to be overheard.” The last part sounds plausible, although I can tell he’s uncomfortable in this role, straining to appear authoritative yet enigmatic. “Just so you know,” I tell him, “there’s someone in the apartment waiting for me, a young lady.” He’s not prepared for this, nor for many other contingencies, I suspect. “That’s your problem,” he says after consideration, “I just need to give you a message.”
I shrug and knock on the door. I need to knock again. She has the music on loud; it sounds sweaty and naked. The door opens wide; she plans to greet me effusively, then she swallows it back as she sees my companion. She looks immediately uneasy; perhaps she thinks I’ve trapped her, that I’m selling her into bondage and this is the first customer. “Don’t worry,” I say, “this is just someone who was waiting to meet me.” We come inside; I introduce her; she turns down the music. “I didn’t catch your name,” I tell him, taking off my shoes. “I can’t give you my name,” he says, leaving his shoes on. He surveys the apartment, more like someone gawking at an open house than an emissary who’s arrived to disrupt it. I suppose I may as well lean into the incongruity, so I ask him if he wants a drink. “She’s already drinking,” I point out. Cindy protests that she only had one glass; if that’s true, she must have the tolerance of a tissue. He looks deeply tempted, by the drink and even by the company, but he resists. “I want to give you the message,” he insists. “All right,” I say, “should I receive it standing up or sitting down?” “I don’t fucking know pal,” he says, “what would you be doing if you were reading the mail?” I’m standing by the kitchen island, so I lean against that. Cindy’s also hanging around; he looks uneasily at her. “It’s fine,” I say, “she can hear it.” “This is your girl?” he asks doubtfully. “More like a business adviser,” I say. Cindy nearly spits with laughter. Another silence follows, until I say: “All right, this is it, let’s hear it.”
He says: “I’m here from Tommy.” I fleetingly think he means the waiter at a pizza place I sometimes go to. Dismissing that possibility, I respond: “Who the hell is Tommy?” Looking more at Cindy than at me, he says: “Maybe you don’t know his name but you know what you did to him. You pushed him under a car last night.” Cindy gasps. She puts her glass down on the table; I register that she doesn’t use a coaster and it’ll probably leave a mark. “All right,” I say, “I didn’t push anyone under a car. But I might know who you’re talking about.” He says: “You could have fucking killed him. It’s a shitty thing to do to a man. Tommy’s never done any harm to anyone.” I don’t respond. He says: “You’re lucky he’s a good guy. I would have told the coppers exactly who you were. There’s no honour in protecting a man who does something like that. But Tommy sees the best in everyone.” I look at Cindy; she’s wide-eyed, like a kid at the zoo. He says: “He’ll keep his mouth shut, but you’ve got to do something about it. Twenty thousand dollars. Looking at this place, he should have asked for more, like I told him to, but he thinks twenty thousand is the right number. That’s what you’ve got to do about it. To go on with your nice fucking life.”
I ask: “What makes you think it was me?” He says: “You dropped this.” He takes out one of my business cards, briefly holds it up for me to see, turns to show it to Cindy, puts it away. “He picked it up when the two of you were talking. You never know what’s going to come in useful.”
I keep business cards in the pockets of all my jackets, so I can pull them out when necessary without seeming too formal or calculating about it. Sometimes they fall out when I pull out my phone or something like that; I often find them on the floor of my office. I can’t really damn myself for being careless; it’s just random bad luck. I’d rather be undone by that than by investigative brilliance or technological oppression; the frivolity of the unmasking matches the impulsiveness of the crime. “This doesn’t have my home address,” I say. “Good thing you’re not called Smith then,” he says. “We found it online in two minutes.” He must be talking about the listed landline, weighed down with voice mails I never listen to. I intended to get around to disconnecting it; now I realize it wasn’t merely a waste of money, but a dormant enemy. “I found pictures of you as well,” he says. “After that, all it took was waiting around.” “All right,” I say, “there’s not much I want to say to that.” I add: “You know blackmail is also a crime.” He says: “Yeah, of course we know. What you going to do about it.”
I walk deeper into the apartment. “You know,” I say, “spaces like this can be deceiving. This place is mortgaged like a motherfucker. I’m nowhere near as rich as you think I am. I can’t get twenty thousand dollars.” This is an absurd lie, but there’s no harm in trying. He says: “I’m not an idiot and neither is Tommy. You can get the money. It says on the business card that you’re an accountant so you can probably steal it.”
“It’ll take a few days at least,” I say, and that’s probably true – I’ll have to liquidate some investments. He shrugs: “That’s all right. Tommy’s not going anywhere, the police aren’t going anywhere.” I’m thinking it’s a shame I’m so unaccustomed to violence, to any kind of rough stuff. This visitor really doesn’t feel threatening. He hasn’t indicated he’s carrying a weapon. I could possibly overpower him, take back the business card, tell him to convey to Tommy that if I hear from either one of them again, I’ll use the twenty thousand dollars to have them both beaten up. I’m tempted to try it; I’d have the element of surprise on my side. But I don’t have enough confidence in the outcome, especially as Cindy’s standing around. I say: “I might be willing to make a deal like that. I’m not admitting I did anything of course. In fact I’m telling you I didn’t do anything. I don’t know who Tommy is or what any of it’s about. But for the sake of peace and putting any misunderstandings to rest, I might be willing to make a contribution. It’s a lot of money for any of us, but your need is probably greater than mine. So it would be a Christian thing to do.” I smirk at that absurd piety.
“Tommy goes to church every Sunday,” he replies. “He sits in the back of St. James’s. He’s the real deal.”
“I suppose some of it will end up in the collection then,” I say. “If they still do those.” I haven’t been into a church for decades; I even skipped several funerals I should have attended, like my father’s. It’s plain to me that there’s no God – becoming an accountant helped to remove the few doubts I ever had about that. If you could dig all the way down into a big company’s income statement, it would disentangle itself into millions or billions of transactions, the efforts of thousands of people and hundreds of locations, pulled into single summary amounts of revenues, and expenses, and bottom line profit. God, likewise, is what you get when you coalesce our billions of human transactions into a single number. It’s just an exercise, like accountancy, depending on a lot of systemic information gathering, some arbitrary rules, and collective faith. The God that arises from all that is real in the same sense that the numbers in an income statement are real: they have meaning as the sum total of what gave rise to them, but no independent life beyond that. We crave the simplicity of God just as we depend on the illustrative ease of accountancy. I’ve thought about this many times; I’m not sure if it’s flashing through my head at this moment because I was reaching for the reassurance of God, or for that of accountancy.
“That’ll be up to him,” he says. “He promised me a piece of it. You can’t say that’s not fair. I took a chance coming here.”
I turn to Cindy. “What do you think about all this?” She oscillates between looking like she’s at the greatest show on earth, and debilitating fear. She moves her lips without saying anything. I tell her I really want to know what she thinks. She says: “Twenty thousand dollars is so much money.” To emphasize that, it seems she’s hardly capable of saying the words. I say: “You think I should negotiate him down?” She flails to indicate she wasn’t suggesting that. It’s an idea though: I wish I had the panache to say I’ll pay a thousand bucks and not a cent more. I’m almost certain they’d accept it in the end. But I’m an accountant, not a negotiator, and the amount doesn’t seem as awe-inspiring to me as it does to her. I pretend to think about it, before saying: “No, fuck it, I’ll pay the twenty thousand. The poor bastard did get pushed under a car. He can use a little stroke of luck.”
“How is he exactly?” asks Cindy. I don’t think I would ever have got round to asking. He says: “He’s fucking lucky. Mostly scrapes and bruises. No broken bones. That would have cost you more. But for once, the world decided to give a shit about what happened to us. He was even on TV. I didn’t get to see it myself, but I heard.”
“All right,” I say. “We have an agreement.” I go on: “I assume you’ll want the money in cash, but it’s not wise. A bank draft would be safer. Installments would be even better, to avoid any temptation to spend it all at once.” This goes down much as I expect; I might as well have suggested settling in beaver pelts. I don’t even bother waiting for an answer. “How do I get hold of you when I have the money?” I ask, moving on. He says: “I’ll call the day after tomorrow to check in on you.” Great, I think, now I’ll have to go through all those voice mails on the landline. He says: “I know you’re probably a clever bastard who has lots of tricks up his sleeve. Don’t fucking try anything. I’m not saying we know people who’ll come and break your legs. The people we know are mostly all clapped out with no muscle mass. But we know where you live and we don’t owe you any protection.”
I acknowledge this. “Don’t worry,” he tells Cindy, “no one knows where you live. Just watch your back around this guy.” He starts moving to the door. There’s a knock – loud, authoritative, a knock certain of obtaining a response. We all jump – I think maybe half the furniture jumps also. “Who the fuck is that?” he demands. “Is that the fucking cops?” “I don’t know,” I say. “No one ever knocks on the door. This is a condo. I don’t know who it is.” I point to the bathroom. “Go in there until we know what’s happening,” I say. He’d clearly rather run; then the knocking repeats itself and he complies. “I’ll hide too,” says Cindy. She goes into the spare bedroom. I look quickly around; I can see signs of Cindy all around – her wine glass sitting on the kitchen island, her coat thrown on the couch, her shoes by the door. I make a snap judgment on the futility of trying to hide her presence. I open the door, just as it appears the third round of knocking might force it off its hinges.
Cedric is standing there. Maybe it’s been years since he had to wait so long for his wish to be fulfilled; he’s looking swollen by outrage, and as he’s a big man anyway, I visualize him getting stuck in the door, not that I intend to invite him in. “I didn’t expect to see you,” I say, truthfully. He says: “An interesting contrast then – I expected to find you in the office at several points today, and yet I didn’t. I also expected you to answer your phone, and you didn’t.” I have a good history with Cedric, but it’s all driven by work, all built on the dynamic of him being the unquestioned decision-maker, out of the two of us anyway. Sure, he often takes my word on things, things he doesn’t give a shit about; obviously he gives a shit now, otherwise he wouldn’t be here. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s barely even asked about my personal life, beyond the minimum required to avoid utter iciness; I’m certain he’s never contemplated coming to my home. Under other circumstances it would be an honour of sorts. Now it’s entirely unwelcome; I don’t know how I need to behave with him, and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to achieve it. He says: “Can I come in,” and then he’s already in, over by the window, the grandeur of the view seeming to shrink in deference to him. “A nice place you have here,” he says, but I’m sure he thinks that living in a downtown condo is little better than sleeping in your office. He asks me to point out our office, but it’s hidden by an intervening tower. “Just as well,” he says, “or you could stand in your office with binoculars and watch the cleaner fucking on your couch.” This seems like an enormously unsuccessful attempt at camaraderie, especially if he knew my cleaner. He sits in the chair where I most often sit, his forearms resting like carcasses on a slab. I sit somewhere else, furious at how quickly I lost control of the dynamic.
He says: “I would have expected better of you. Still, I can empathize. I’d given you some unpleasant news and I shouldn’t have expected you just to run with it as if nothing was happening. I expect you felt there was no more reason to be loyal or even conscientious. But that’s never the right assessment. No matter what’s going on, you can always improve your position or worsen it.” I stare at the floor. “Not to mention,” he says, “that I told you I would stand my ground and work in your best interests. I let you know about the threat from Ozzie because I wanted to be transparent. If I’d known you’d react like this, I would have said nothing. But that’s how I treat people I don’t respect.” I hear this less through my own ears than through those of my hidden visitors, which I’m sure are pressed right up against their respective doors.
“Understood,” I say. “But does it change anything?” Regardless that he booms everything out as if to a town hall gathering, I keep my voice low. “Well, here’s the thing,” he says. “We got some news today that I don’t think will have reached you yet. It’s about Jack Gardien.” I indicate I don’t know anything. “I’ll be the one to tell you then,” he says. “Jack Gardien killed himself. At least, that’s the way it was communicated to us. Perhaps it’s ambiguous – they informed us he threw himself under an oncoming truck. Perhaps it was an accident of some kind. In any event, it was certainly fatal.”
He looks like he just pulled the world’s biggest rabbit out of its smallest hat. I don’t know whether this is a release or a further blow, perhaps a fatal one. As soon as the words leave his mouth, I visualize it all – Gardien stumbling off the sidewalk; the rapacious roaring lights of the oncoming truck; an impact that leaves nothing of a man, a wide pulpy stain on the road that will never be entirely cleaned away; and I see myself there, a triumphant witness to all of it. I feel like pulling my other visitor out of the bathroom, to confirm just who we were or weren’t talking about before. “I don’t understand,” I say. “We know this? Someone saw it happen?”
“I can’t give you a play by play,” says Cedric, “but the version I got is that he was standing on the sidewalk in broad daylight and that he very clearly jumped. This was at Lakeshore, so you know what the traffic’s like at rush hour. He wouldn’t have had a chance. There were several witnesses. I’ll admit to you, it went through my mind at first that you might have come up behind him and pushed him. You might have had reason. But that’s not being suggested, you’ll be glad to know.”
“He left a note or something?”
“Not that I’ve heard. It’s still early days. He had all his ID on him. His sister lived close by, she got the call, she identified the body. She placed a couple of calls, each of them probably placed a couple of calls, next thing you know the whole town knows. Except you. The one who had most to gain. I’m just yanking your chain. I know you didn’t wish the guy dead. You were probably the best friend he had, even if that’s not saying a whole fuck of a lot.”
“I hadn’t talked to him for a long time,” I say.
“Of course not, with what was going on. Anyway, we won’t know until we know, but my strong guess is this means the end of your problems with the Commission. I bounced it off someone who should know and he saw it the same way. They can’t hound poor Gardien anymore, and it’s hard to get anywhere against you without him. And the matter isn’t important enough to shake the bones of the dead.”
“What about there being no smoke without fire?” I ask.
“You’re talking about Ozzie. I told you I would try to manage him. This makes it easier. We already have one dead man, we don’t need to create another one. Figuratively I mean.”
I reflect on all this for a while. I was so certain that it was over, as surely as if I’d boarded a plane and flown away from it. The certainty with which I left it behind in the last few hours weighs more than the fifteen years I’ve spent there; at this moment I can hardly conceive how I’ll find a way back in. I’m sure I’ve damaged my standing with the staff, although on the other hand, a little chaotic behaviour might just emphasize my human side and work to my advantage in the long run. Even as half of me thinks it’s impossible, I’m also starting to think about the meetings I missed today and how quickly I can get them rescheduled. But also I’m thinking over and over about how I killed Gardien. My hands and feet are throbbing with the sense memory of how they pushed him, how they carried me away from the scene. My memory says it was another guy, at another time in a different part of the city, but I can’t trust my memory on this. I feel a frightening inner conflict developing. I say: “I’m going to need time to process all this. I’m very shocked about Gardien.”
“Of course,” says Cedric. “I’ve always told you to take more time off. Take as long as you need. Within reason.” He gets up. “I noticed you were drinking,” he says, indicating Cindy’s half-full glass. “I’ll join you for a quick one. Don’t worry, I’ll serve myself.” I want him out, but I’m helpless to protest. He passes Cindy’s glass to me when he returns, saying he gave me a top up. I say: “I did see something on the news this morning about a man being pushed under a car. But that happened last night, and it wasn’t at Lakeshore, I think it was on Dundas. Did you see that?”
“Possibly I did,” said Cedric. “I don’t tune into all these local stories of crime and mishap. I always stay focused on the big picture. I do vaguely think I heard the story you mention. But as you say, it’s not relevant. Your point is about the danger of being a pedestrian?”
“I was wondering whether Gardien saw the same story this morning. I mean, I don’t know if he watched the local news either. But if he did, and he was already thinking of doing something like this, maybe it helped his thoughts coalesce. Maybe it was in a sense his inspiration.”
“Possibly,” says Cedric. “It’s a pointless speculation. There’s no shortage of sources for ideas on how to kill yourself, or for loopy ideas in general. But I don’t blame you for trying to see all sides of the matter.” It’s clear his patience for it will be limited though. He waits for me to say something else; when I don’t, he says: “As I’m here, I’d like to pick your brain about something.” He starts talking about the monthly report we provide to the board; he has an idea for reformatting it, for making some numbers (the ones he likes) more prominent and deemphasizing others. I doubt if this will prompt the board members to read it any more carefully than they do now, but I pretend to listen and to take mental notes. “You don’t have to agree with all this,” he says at one point, “feel free to push back.” I make a few token suggestions, without even listening to myself. “Maybe this wasn’t the right moment to talk about this,” says Cedric; I’d roll my eyes, if that was in my repertoire of expressions. He drinks the rest of his wine, commenting on how I never touched mine.
“All right,” he says, “I’ll leave you to it.” The chair exhales as he gets off it. He asks: “Any likelihood you’ll be in tomorrow?” I remind him that he told me to take some time off. “Naturally,” he says, “I just wasn’t sure you were taking me up on that. I assume you’ll at least check for urgent messages.” I indicate I will, but I don’t tell him I don’t have my phone. Walking to the door, he says: “I’m meeting Jack Jilowsky for dinner. I suppose you’ve heard of Jack. Brilliant guy.” He starts on a tedious old war story about how Jilowsky demonstrated his brilliance by being born with family money and then adding several zeroes to it by being in the right place at the right time. I’m trying to usher him along, but then he swerves away from me, striding to the bathroom: “I’ll just pay a fast visit,” he says. I try to stop him, to say he should use the other bathroom, but the door’s already open, and the hidden visitor is already exposed. “Oh,” says Cedric. “I didn’t realize anyone was in here. Well of course I didn’t.” The visitor steps out. “Go ahead,” he mumbles, moving out of the way. Cedric hesitates, but then he goes ahead, shutting the door. He pisses as loud as he talks.
I know he’ll expect some explanation, but I can’t think of anything that’s likely to be both plausible and satisfying. I ask the visitor if he heard the conversation. “Enough of it to get the drift,” he says. “Boring old twat though isn’t he. I was thinking of coming out anyway and pretending to be the plumber.” Grabbing at the best thing I can think of, I go to the spare bedroom and lead Cindy out. “Pretend to be a couple,” I tell them. “I know it’s ridiculous, but just do the best you can.” She’s understandably bemused, but goes to stand beside him. He starts to put an arm around her; she swats it away. “We’re not that great a couple,” she hisses. Cedric comes back out, starting to say something, then abandoning it when he sees Cindy. “Another one,” he says. “Is that it or will we end up with a full house?” They both laugh, more convincingly than I’d have expected. “That’s it,” I assure him, “you can search the place and that’s all you’ll find.” Obviously he expects more. “This is Cindy,” I say, “and this is Eric.” Cedric shakes hands with them both. I say: “Cindy and Eric are staying with me. In my spare room. I can’t remember if I told you that. Eric is a relative, actually he’s my cousin’s brother, and Cindy is his girlfriend.” Cedric says: “He’s your cousin then.” I don’t get what he means. He says: “If he’s your cousin’s brother, then he’s also your cousin.” I say: “I meant my cousin’s half-brother. I don’t think of him as a cousin in the same way because we didn’t see each other as much as kids. Well, I’m older, as you can see. But they were coming to Toronto and so I said they should stay with me.”
“I see,” says Cedric. “Where are you from?” “Oakville,” says Cindy. “Not a huge change of location then,” says Cedric. She says: “I mean, we’re in Vancouver now. I used to be from Oakville.” She turns toward Eric and I can tell she’s already forgotten the name I gave him. “You’re from Vancouver right,” she says. “Right,” says Eric, as I think of him now. “Vancouver born and bred.”
“I’m interested in why you were hiding,” says Cedric. I say: “They knew I was having a rough day, that this might even be the end of the road, professionally speaking. I had a feeling I might get a visit from the office. When you knocked, I asked them to stay out of the way until I figured out the lay of the land. I was so shocked by what you came to tell me, everything else went out of my mind.” Addressing Eric and Cindy, I say: “Sorry you guys for leaving you in there. Especially you Eric, good thing it doesn’t smell too bad in there. Unless I just can’t smell the lingering odour of my own shit.” I pat him on the shoulder as I might a cousin.
“I certainly would have appreciated being told we had an audience,” says Cedric. I say: “You can’t hear anything from in there. You were just in there, I’m sure you heard nothing.” He asks what they’re doing in Toronto; Eric stares at the floor. Cindy says: “We just wanted to hang out, see some sights.” Cedric asks: “Where are you based in Vancouver?” Neither one answers quickly. Eventually Cindy just says: “Downtown.” “The downtown eastside?” asks Cedric. She says: “We move a lot. We’re practically homeless.” “That’s a sad state to be in,” says Cedric.
He moves to the door, but then stops and turns around. “We’ve been talking about how there’s no smoke without fire,” he says to me. “My lungs are clogging from the smoke now. I realize your private life is your own, but this isn’t a normal time. I need to know you can return to work and function reliably. And I need to know nothing’s going on which will damage the company’s reputation by association. I don’t feel confident about either of those things.” Addressing Eric and Cindy, he says: “I’m afraid I don’t believe a single thing you’ve told me so far. I don’t believe I can leave without getting to the bottom of this.” He walks back to the window, taking in the view just as he did before, as if effecting a complete reset; then he sits. I look desperately at Eric and Cindy; obviously they can’t help. I remind Cedric of his dinner with Jack Jilowsky. He’s already on his phone, canceling it. “Jack knows how these things work,” he says. “He once withdrew an offer to fly to Florida on his private jet, just as I was arriving at the terminal. The money started to blow in a different direction and off he went.”
I say: “Look, you’re obviously not entirely wrong, we didn’t tell you everything. But I swear to you it’s unrelated. Nothing is happening here that will ever find its way back to the office. It’s just a personal matter.” Cedric says: “They’re a drug dealer and a prostitute, is that it? The first of those certainly seems likely. As for the other, I suppose you can never tell.” Eric says: “Look man, I don’t have to take this. I’m getting out of here.” But then he doesn’t move. Cindy says: “It’s got nothing to do with you what I do for a living.” She comes over and takes back her glass. “This is mine by the way,” she says. Cedric asks her to bring the bottle from the kitchen; she looks defiantly at him but then obeys anyway. He refills his own glass, then suggests we should all join in. Eric says he’d prefer a beer. I get him one from the fridge, and one for myself. We all sit in a semi-circle, like a family settling down to watch TV. Her glass rapidly emptying again, Cindy says to Cedric: “If we all have to be so honest, why don’t you tell us how many prostitutes you know.” He says: “The least I can expect is that my questions be answered first.” She says: “I think you know more of them than all the rest of us put together.” Eric says: “To be honest, I know a few, so maybe not.”
The music ended at some point, and the silence in the room is now excruciating and unchanging, seeming to assert no way of moving on from this. I put the music back on; it kicks in too loudly, startling all three of them. I apologize and turn it down. We all drink and contemplate. Eric says: “I could use a smoke.” I tell him to go out on the balcony. He says: “I don’t want to miss anything.” Cindy asks about the music; I tell her it’s Stevie Wonder. “Oh yeah,” she says, “my mom really likes him.” I think she’s oblivious to the cliché. “He’s the blind one right,” she says. I tell her there are other blind ones, at least one who’s about as prominent. Eric talks a bit about punk. Cedric listens, apparently contented. After a while he chimes in that although his tastes are primarily classical, he did see Bob Dylan and the Band perform in the 70s. At any other time, I would have asked more follow-up questions about it.
A lot of time passes. It seems we’ve all forgotten about the rest of our lives. Eric says: “I think I’ll have that smoke.” “How about a cigar,” says Cedric. “I’ll join you for one.” They go out onto the balcony together; the conversation between them seems to take off, although I can’t hear any of it. I can’t think of anything to say to Cindy. She volunteers: “Just so we’re clear, there’s no way I’m sleeping with him.” I ask her why that needed to be clarified. She says: “He looks like a man who thinks he can buy whatever he wants. I have a friend who knows a man like that. He gives her an allowance, that’s what she calls it. She says he can’t do it a lot of the time because he drinks too much and he passes out, but sometimes she has to give him what he wants. I don’t judge her for it, but it’s not for me.”
“Fine,” I say, “but I don’t think that’s the vibe here. She says: “I’m here with three men, all of them are older than me and two of them are as rich as shit, everyone’s drinking and no one’s going anywhere. How is that not the vibe?” I say: “Maybe I’m just not tuned in. I thought we all had bigger things on our minds.” She says: “Things are never that big. I knew someone who was killed in a car accident. Her fiancée slept with someone else on the day of her funeral. It might even have been someone he met at the funeral, I can’t remember.” She empties the last of the bottle into her glass. She says: “I mean, you did ask me here.”
“I have a lot on my mind,” I say. “I’m not feeling sexual. I’ve known stories like that too, I’ve been in some of them. I don’t know if it’s true that men think about sex every five minutes, or whatever the claim is. I don’t know what constitutes a thought about sex. Maybe it’s just an awareness of human closeness. An awareness isn’t necessarily a wish. It might be enough in itself.” I have to laugh at myself then. “Of course I’m thinking about sex with you now, because I couldn’t deny having the thought without engaging with what the thought would be. But I’m thinking of it in a very sanitized way, like a movie scene shot from a distance, with everything happening under the covers. It’s so sanitized it’s virtually in black and white.”
She asks: “Do you ever think about people you know, like people you work with for example, and imagine in detail what it would be like with them? I mean go through it in your mind step by step, until you can almost feel your fingers on them?” She asks the question as if something significant might depend on the answer. “I don’t think so,” I say. “Maybe I’m just not good enough in bed to do that much fantasy planning.” She says: “Do you think someone like Justin Trudeau sometimes drifts away during cabinet meetings and starts to think about fucking one of his ministers?” “I don’t know,” I say. “If people had access to each other’s secret thoughts, society would probably break down in a week.” She fills in: “Because we’d find out how little we really respect each other.” I say: “Not that exactly. I suppose it’s out of respect that we keep so much hidden from each other. Or maybe it’s fear. Or necessity.”
With this out of the way, I feel we should start strategizing, but the other two return from the balcony and sit again. We all wait for Cedric to speak, and he savours the knowledge that we’re waiting. He looks at me very gravely and darkly. He says: “My friend here decided to tell me the truth about why he’s here, in exchange for a small payment. I can hardly bring myself to say the words, but I will say them. I understand that you’re implicated in the incident we talked about earlier, and that my friend here is representing the gentleman you caused to be injured, almost to be killed.” I don’t care for the cumbersome way in which he chooses to express this; it makes me think of the flowery style he brings to his memos. When they’re for external consumption, he usually has me edit them down. He asks: “Is that an accurate statement?”
I say: “Sure, it’s accurate enough anyway. You’re right about why he’s here”
He says: “My friend here” – the phrase is already starting to grate on me – “couldn’t tell me whether you were responsible for Jack Gardien’s similar demise. You seemed genuinely surprised when I told you about it, so I’m assuming not.” I say: “That’s right. The similarity troubles me, so much that I’m doubting my own memory. But I had nothing to do with it. From what you said, there are witnesses who’d confirm that. So we only need to discuss one outrage, not two. Not that we do need to discuss them. You only need to tell me what you’re going to do.”
He says: “I suppose you think I’m going to turn you in.” He obviously enjoys having such a low-life phrase pass his lips. Playing into that, I say: “Yes, I think you’re going to squeal on me.” I’m thinking I might punch him in the face first, giving him something else to squeal about. I say: “Anyway, that’ll be up to you. Obviously this is the end of it. You came here to tell me I wasn’t being fired for one thing, and I end up being fired for another. It has a kind of music to it almost. You’ll walk out in five minutes or ten minutes and I expect that’ll be the last time we ever talk about anything. Maybe I’ll see you at my trial, but it might be tough to chat then.”
“Such melodramatic self-pity,” says Cedric. “Why would you assume I’d fire you for this?” I say: “Well, just to begin, there’s the thing about no smoke without fire. Even if the only smell of smoke in here is coming off you two fucking people.” Cedric says: “You’ve certainly started a fire, but my friend here has offered you a way to put it out.” I say: “I’m wanted by the police. You’re the chief financial officer of a public company on the Toronto Stock Exchange. You’re not even allowed to backdate a grant of stock options. If you learn one of your senior staff is wanted for attempted murder, potentially, it’s not hard to figure out what your duty is.” Cedric says: “Human beings are laden with duties. The higher we climb up the ladder, the more they fall out of the sky and attach themselves to us like barnacles, hoping to push us off. Our task is to resist them as much as to submit to them.”
“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” I say.
“Just between us friends here, we don’t need to subscribe to the same liberal pieties that govern so-called polite conversation. There are too many people on the planet, simple observations tells us they’re not all born equal, and simple logic tells us they can’t be made equal subsequent to that. It’s not as if you acted solely out of racial animosity. You didn’t target a productive member of society, solely because of his skin colour. You put into practice what everyone knows but fears to say. Many of us, even of us white males, are born far from privilege, and such lives are expendable. To worry about them only when they’re mistreated or targeted only confirms their meaninglessness at other times.”
I thought Cedric was a conventionally unimaginative right winger, but this doesn’t sound to me like that, nor like a rationalization he’s improvising on the spot. It sounds like someone taking out his Bible and reading from his favourite page. I’m thinking Eric should be seething at this, but he’s nodding vigorously, muttering something encouraging. I suppose that’s related to the reasons Republicans own the poor white vote, even as they systematically work against that group’s economic interests: an enduring mix of aspiration, cultural identification and delusion. “I appreciate the support,” I say, “but I wasn’t making a statement, and I wasn’t asking for any interpretation, good or bad. It was something I did for myself, out of pure selfishness. I took what was there before me and I tried to destroy it. It could as easily have been a woman, or a black man, or a kid.” I don’t actually think any of those three things are true though. I might not have thought I was making a statement about expendable white males, but I would certainly have recoiled from seeming to symbolize misogyny, or racism, or utter heartless child-killing bastardry. In that sense Cedric’s right, I picked someone who seemed to me largely absent of content. But I feel I have to resist Cedric, that he might be most dangerous of all when posturing as a knowing ally. “There’s no way of redeeming what I did,” I say for emphasis. “Turn a blind eye to it if you think you can, but that’ll be just as venal as the act itself.”
“I’m sure you know how easily the contradictions in our moral outlook are exposed,” says Cedric. “Take the thought experiments about the identical outcomes of killing a child by your own hand, and preventing to save one who’ll otherwise die, by not rushing the rescue, or even not by making a charitable donation. A demonstration of active antipathy provokes horror, passive disregard provokes nothing at all. I think you’ve drawn us most effectively into that intellectual space.”
“Regardless,” I say, not trying to hold back how angry I am. “that space doesn’t exist outside the pages of a philosophy textbook. I don’t want to listen to any more of this bullshit.” Turning to Eric, I say: “There’s no need for you to wait around anymore. Get in touch in a few days, as we agreed, I’ll have the money. That’s all you need to know about it.”
Cedric says to Eric: “I’ll have the money for you tomorrow, as we agreed. And a little more for your trouble.” He tells me: “My friend and I discussed all this outside and came to a revised arrangement. We’ve already finalized the details. You needn’t even concern yourself with it anymore.”
I get to my feet. “Are you fucking kidding me? I needn’t concern myself?” I pace to the other side of the room and stare at the wall, only reluctantly returning. “Where the fuck does that leave me?” I demand. “A slave to you for the rest of my life? It’s not fucking worth it.” I say to Eric: “Don’t you dare take money from him. This is between you and me.” He hardly registers my presence anymore; he’s entirely in Cedric’s pocket. Cedric says: “My agreement with my friend is exclusive; that is, the terms require that the only payment to be accepted will be from me. Your money isn’t requested and won’t be accepted.” I yell: “That’s the price of their silence, you fucking asshole, that’s something they sell to me, not to you.” Cedric says: “I’m not foolish enough to think you’ll be a slave for the rest of your life, as you put it, for the price of twenty thousand dollars. I’m in this with you now. I’m putting myself in jeopardy as well. As you said, I have duties.”
I go to take a leak, although it’s bad timing, given how I’m quivering with anger and my aim is all over the place. I’m certain he’s trying to provoke me, but I don’t know why. I actually wonder if he has a death wish, and this is the first step in having me deliver him from his earthly pain. I wash my hands and then simmer in the bathroom. Almost all possibilities pass through my head – prison, death, a lifetime of uncertainty and submission. I might have left them to their smug conversation and gone to hide in my bedroom, except that I’m nervous about what other poison Cedric might be laying down. When I return, he and Eric are smoking on the balcony again. Cindy’s walking around with her glass; while I was away, they opened another bottle. She says: “This is getting seriously weird. Maybe I should go.”
“What, and miss a once in a lifetime show like this?”
“I don’t think it’s a very safe situation for me. It’s getting out of control.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll try to get them out of here. Then maybe you and I can chill and watch TV.” I smile to acknowledge how unattainable that feels. She says: “I don’t think your boss is planning on leaving.” I say: “Who knew this was what he was waiting for, an entry to the dark underbelly of society. Obviously money and respectability aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” She says: “Well, they didn’t stop you from lashing out. I still don’t understand why you pushed that guy. I don’t think you believe poor people are scum, or whatever it is he believes. I don’t think you’re full of rage that needed to come out. Why did you do it?”
“I suppose I did it to shake things up,” I say. “And I got what I wanted.” She says: “If you wanted to shake things up, you should have gotten yourself a dog. A big one with lots of energy.” “Maybe that’s obvious now,” I say, “but you weren’t here to talk to about it.”
The light is getting grey and thin; the dark windows of the adjacent towers are suddenly becoming golden or amber, some of them revealing their inhabitants, looking outside or moving mundanely around in their spaces. One guy is changing a light bulb; another actually is playing with a dog, just as I’d perhaps be playing now, in a parallel universe of more benign shake-ups. I point this out to her and we watch together. I say: “You know what I’ve never seen from here? Nudity, sex. I’m not saying I spend a lot of time watching for it, but it’s still a disappointment.” She says: “Maybe they’re just as disappointed in you.” I say: “But we don’t know what’s on regular display in the unit below us, or the one above. Maybe this is the only dull window on this side of the building.” She says: “In that case they’ll all be looking this way later. It means there’ll be plenty of witnesses when someone gets thrown off your balcony.”
We quietly watch for signs and wonders until the other two come back inside. Eric heads straight for the door, barely looking our way. “All right ladies and gents,” he says, “I’ll see you in a few.” He leaves. Cedric comes back to his chair. The smoke sits heavier on him than his expensive suit does. “What’s he talking about?” I ask. Cedric says: “He’s just off on an errand, he’ll be back shortly.” I say: “There’s no possible fucking errand that creates a need for him to come back. And if there was, there’s no fucking reason you’d still be here.” Cedric says loftily: “I disagree with you on both counts.”
I look outside again, searching for anything in any of those illuminated boxes that might inform my next move, any hint of someone dealing with a comparable invasion and managing to get the best of it. I say: “Sounds like you’re not leaving any time soon then.” Cedric says: “I’m certainly starting to feel at home here.” I again feel he’s trying to incite me to violence. “Well at least drop the enigmatic bullshit,” I say: “Just tell me what’s going on.” This obviously isn’t persuasive. He says: “I don’t know how I can be any more enigmatic than a man surrounded by death on the one hand and by randomly selected female company on the other.”
I only now remember the bag that Cindy packed for me, and then in turn I remember her friend Ryan, standing in the street between the two strangers. I ask her if she’s heard from him; she says he texted her a few hours ago, saying it was too much bullshit for him and he was just going home. I tell her how I watched him from across the street. Cedric says: “You’re talking about the young man who came to the office to collect your messages. I talked to him myself, then I got someone from building management to accompany him downstairs, to make contact with you. It didn’t work obviously. I gave the young man a tip for his trouble.” “Jesus,” I say, “you’ll have my own mother on the payroll next.” I think he takes it as a useful suggestion; it’s a good thing he’ll never find her. I decide I’ve had enough of this. I say: “If you’re feeling so at home here, let’s make it official, you take it. I’m getting out of here, going to a hotel.” “All right,” says Cedric, “perhaps you’ll benefit from some time in a neutral atmosphere.” Cindy says she’s leaving too. She finishes her wine in a couple of gulps, then goes to the washroom. I don’t want to be alone with Cedric, so I leave the room until she returns. I think of the filing cabinet where I keep all my life records; usually I just leave the key in the lock, but I take it with me now, along with the USB key on which I back up my personal documents. If I had a photo album I cared about, I’d probably take that too. Cedric is fingering a cigar; I know he’ll light it up indoors as soon as I leave. He says: “I hope we’ll sit down soon and discuss all this calmly. Perhaps in the office tomorrow.” I don’t respond. I only talk to Cindy, to check she’s ready to go. She picks up some shopping bags, and then we leave, without any further attempt at managing the situation, let alone bringing closure to it.
In the elevator, I apologize to her for everything. But she says it’s not necessary. “It’s actually sort of inspiring,” she says. “I always feel my life moves slowly ahead in a straight line. The last few hours are all curves and squiggles. If I could figure out how to do that all the time, my life would be much more interesting. Probably a mess, but more interesting.”
“It’s not possible to do it all the time,” I say. “Eventually the curves and squiggles turn in on themselves and just become a big black static dot.”
She asks: “Have you always been dissatisfied with your life?” “I don’t know,” I say. “There’s been no God in it, so some people would say it couldn’t possibly have been satisfying enough. Maybe that’s what Cedric’s trying to remedy in his own blundering way.” The doors open. The young woman standing there is new to the building I think; I’ve noticed her a few times but haven’t talked to her. She always has her blonde hair up in a bun and wears long, tight, sleeveless dresses. She never makes eye contact but never seems to be actively avoiding it either. Whenever I see her, I always feel certain she’d naturally make eye contact with Eliza, if they were ever face to face. I was looking forward to witnessing that one day, but now I don’t care. Maybe that’s a bit of progress then.
We walk through the lobby, out into the street. I start to head for the hotel, but Cindy directs me to look the other way. Eric’s approaching, accompanied by a thin, tanned woman with messy hair; she’s wearing flip-flops, and a mismatched T-shirt and shorts, and she looks like someone who crashed into middle age too fast. I don’t know if I’d identify her as a prostitute if I passed her into the street, whether due to naivete or generosity, but I certainly see her that way now. “Jesus Christ,” I say to Cindy, “good fucking thing we’re getting out of here.” Still, we wait for them to reach us. The woman has extraordinarily bright eyes; I think it can only mean she’s burning up too fast. Eric says: “These are the people I told you about. Well, he’s not the guy I told you about, he’s the other guy in the story.” That seems to sum it all up. He introduces her to us as Katrina. Deciding I may as well play into the incongruity, I say to her: “I hope you’re having a nice evening so far.” She says: “I’m doing fine honey. Where are you two off to? He told me we were having a party.” She asks Eric: “Who’s the one who did that to your friend?” He says, exasperated: “This is him, this is the other guy. The guy I’m taking you to see is the first guy, this is the second guy.” “Who’s she?” she asks of Cindy. He says: “She’s a friend of the second guy, this guy here. Maybe he doesn’t have any friends, he just has people he knows.” Cindy doesn’t say anything.
Katrina says to me: “It’s a shame you’re leaving. The people leaving are always more interesting than the people staying.” I say: “You haven’t even met the man who’s staying.” She shrugs and repeats the observation. I think about asking her to come with me instead, as a small assertion of offsetting power, but I suppose Eric would just go away and return with someone else. I say: “He has a lot of money anyway. Make sure you take as much of it as you can.” She says: “It’s always a negotiation honey.” I open the door for them, and walk them past the concierge to the elevator, to ward off possible questions, not that the building has an official policy on hookers. I rejoin Cindy outside. We start walking to the hotel. “That’s a really skanky-looking woman,” says Cindy. I say: “Don’t say that, we don’t know what her story is.” I add: “She does look pretty rough though.”
It’s a warm night, sticking to us as we walk in it. Adelaide is down to a single lane because of road works, and so the traffic is heavier and more irritable, and that irritation tries to stick to us too. Cindy asks me what I’m going to do. I say: “I’m going to answer that like a dumb guy who takes everything literally. I’m going to sleep, if I can manage it, and pray things are clearer in the morning.” She asks: “What if they’re not?” I say: “Well, we can be sure they won’t be, that my prayer won’t be answered. I’m hoping Cedric’s grabbing at this to throw off a lifetime of repression. Maybe in the morning it’ll be out of his system. The guys get paid to walk away, Cedric and I go back to work and agree never to talk about this again, maybe in a year or two we actually forget it ever happened. It’s possible, remotely.”
She says: “Or maybe he decides he wants to spend his whole life like this and he blackmails you to help make it happen for him.” I say: “It wouldn’t be a very stable situation. It couldn’t last very long, I think.” A few steps later, I say: “This might sound self-indulgent or clueless, but I don’t do a lot for myself. I mean in terms of maximizing the available possibilities. I live in a nice place, I make good money, but I hardly ever go on vacation, I don’t have a fancy car or a boat or a cottage or season tickets for the Leafs or any of the conventional things I might be spending the money on. I don’t even have a relationship I can count on to do anything for me. It’s not a lot of return on my investment in work and in life. And I can’t explain why it turned out that way, it wasn’t in any sense what I wanted. But also, I don’t know why I’m not madder about it. You know, working in technical accounting, the area I work in, is an incredibly abstract kind of territory. You can spend hours or even days working on an issue which will only ever have a tiny impact on anything that goes out into the world. There’s a whole machine that keeps it going, a pretty lucrative machine if you live inside it, but one that might as well have been designed to keep you from noticing the sun or the rain or the seasons.”
She says: “I always thought accountants mainly existed to help people get round paying tax.” It’s a common misconception and I don’t bother to get into it. We pass a guy with a briefcase, apparently just now finished for the day, heading home just as I might have been doing, if none of what’s happened had happened. I think I may even have walked home behind this very guy once or twice; perhaps there are times when he’s walked home behind me. I feel I should warn him, but I don’t know yet how to adapt this ongoing turbulence into a transferable life lesson. If I ever learn how to do that, then maybe I’ll become a kind of urban white-collar missionary, although perhaps the object will be for my subjects to succumb to a kind of informed savagery, not for them to be cleansed of it. We cross Jarvis, skirting the corner of the park before crossing to the hotel. We still haven’t talked about what she’s planning to do now, whether she’s perhaps just making sure I arrive safely, or whether there’s to be anything beyond that. She follows me into reception. I tell the guy – of course it’s a different guy by now - that I accidentally left my key card in the room; he gives me a new one. Cindy accompanies me up in the elevator. It smells now like a mix of spices and detergent; the corridor just smells like the detergent. She says she would have expected I’d stay in a better hotel. I remind her my original plan wasn’t to stay here, but just to meet my girlfriend here for sex. She says: “You just finished saying you don’t maximize your possibilities.” I say: “Well, she never showed up.”
Once I close the door and take my shoes off, it feels like the day left me with exactly enough energy to do those two things, and no more. I cover the distance from the door to the bed more by falling than walking; I succumb to a yawn that eats my face. “I’m sorry,” I somehow say while yawning, “I just realized how tired I am.” I start to say something appreciative and supportive, but I never get to the end of it. I don’t remember what I dream about, only that if a normal dream takes place at a level removed from everyday consciousness, then this dream takes place several levels below that; when I wake up, I feel I was in an inverted elevator shaft, thirty or forty floors below ground, and that a single violent, lung-compressing, skin-stretching kick of the apparatus returned me to the surface. I wake up entirely disorientated, feeling incapable of ever locating myself, but then of course it settles. It’s almost 2 am. Cindy is asleep next to me, under the covers. She’s taken off all or most of her clothes, I don’t investigate which, but her presence there feels mostly chaste and practical, as if this was the only available bed in the city, so of course she had to share it with me. I’m glad she’s there, because otherwise I’d feel I was waking up in a friendless, possessionless void. Without conducting much of a conversation with myself, I strip down to my boxers, root around in my bag for the toothbrush and toothpaste, then I go into the bathroom and brush my teeth for several minutes, and then I wash my face using the cardboard sliver of soap the hotel provides, and then I sit on the toilet for several more minutes. I try to be open to any idea or realization that comes now, but I start yawning again, and I go back to sleep as soon as I return to the bed.
I wake up again, more gradually this time. Cindy’s already dressed and moving around. The fresh daylight overwhelms the room, rendering everything in it stained and dusty and pathetic. Cindy looks like a little girl on a big stage. She’s wearing a different dress, hanging carelessly on her. “Jesus,” I say, “I hardly ever sleep like that.” “It’s still only seven thirty,” she says, “but I need to get to work.”
I sit up in bed, aware that I’ll probably look like a sagging wreck compared to whatever other male torsos she’s previously seen in such conditions. I suppose I at least wanted to start the day by being real. I ask her how she slept. She says: “It’s weird, but I slept incredibly well. The combination of drinking too much and being in a strange bed should have killed me, but I feel like I hit all the right buttons. Maybe I was drawing it from you. I wondered a couple of times if you were still breathing.”
“I almost wondered that about myself,” I say. I try to describe what I experienced. I say: “It’s as if I wanted to draw as far away as possible from everything that happened, so I could come back to it with fresh eyes.”
“So how does it look now, with fresh eyes?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “I can’t see it from here.” But I feel contented and present and capable, better equipped to move forward, perhaps even to arrive somewhere sustainable. She makes me an instant coffee in a cardboard cup. She talks about everything except the things we should be talking about: her old-school but lovable parents, her geek older brother who looks down on her, her desire to go to Europe. I know she doesn’t expect me to respond or even to listen, that this is her way of pulling me further up the shore. I tell her my last five or six trips to Europe were on business, that I saw no more than you see on the ride to and from the airport, which seldom amounts to much, or on the cab rides from hotels to offices to restaurants. “I used to stay an extra day or two at least,” I say, “to walk around and at least experience something, but I got out of the habit. I think I started taking a perverse kind of pride in always being on the other side of the window. Although there’s a kind of humility to it too. What you glean from a few days in some other place is so trivial that maybe there’s more integrity in not trying at all.”
“You glean the fact that the people are there,” she says. “You look at them, not through a window, look at them directly, and they know you came there to see them, and it means something. Even in my stupid job, those are the best customers, the ones who can hardly speak English and have to order by pointing, or who actually look super-excited because it’s different than anything they have at home. We don’t get many of those though. We’re too far from the CN Tower and the aquarium.”
I sense that if I took her to Europe with me, she’d be the leader and the teacher, I’d be the follower and the pupil. I toy with saying we should go tonight. She gets up, saying it’s that time, time to leave for work, as if we’ve lived this morning routine a thousand times. I say: “I’m not sure what will happen today, where I’ll be tonight.” “No problem,” she says. “Let me know. I finish at three again.” She gathers her stuff together. “Nice dress by the way,” I say. She says: “Just as well, you paid for it. And for another one too.” This reminds her she still has my credit card. I tell her to keep it, that I have others. She leaves without arguing about it.
I register that there wasn’t a single physical contact between us, not even when she brought me the coffee. I’m not sure how conscious that was, or what it says about her, or about me. Yesterday was the same. And yet she willingly came to my place, to this room, to the same bed as me. I tell myself we all draw the lines in different ways.
Anyway, I have a lot to thank her for. I shower, shave, brush my teeth, get dressed. I put on the local news station: there’s nothing new about Tommy, as I now need to think of him. At reception, I’m asked if I enjoyed my stay. I say: “I enjoyed it so much I may come back tonight. I’ll let you know.” He says: “We’ll be very happy to see you again sir.” I leave the hotel without knowing my destination. I decide to go home, if only for efficiency because it’s so close. I tell myself to expect nothing and to be shaken by nothing, but then I’m still mildly surprised when I stare up at my unit and see the windows intact. I nod at the concierge as if I’d just popped out for a coffee. I pause at the door to my unit, almost praying for equanimity. I recall that I talked last night about praying for something too. Before that, I can’t remember the last time I thought of prayer, even frivolously. I try the handle; it’s not locked. I go inside. Well, I say to myself, the place is still here. It smells sick with smoke; I pull back the sliding balcony door all the way, inviting the air to flood in. The ashtray seems fuller than two or three people could achieve. I count more than twenty empty beer cans, five wine bottles and several from other kinds of liquor. I didn’t have that much booze in the place: they must have restocked somehow. There’s no one in any of the rooms now. My bed looks disheveled and unhealthy; I can’t say for sure that anything happened, but I strip it down anyway and put the sheets in the washing machine. I find more cigarette butts and beer cans on the balcony. Still, overall, it could have been worse; nothing looks broken or damaged; as far as I can tell, nothing is missing.
I change my clothes. I plan to sit for a while, but the place doesn’t feel like mine any more. I call Gyongi, who comes in to clean every other week, and ask her if she can come in today. She says she can’t, but she can send someone else. I accept the offer, telling her it’s dirtier than usual and will take longer. I don’t know if that’s objectively true, but I want someone to look at it as a putrid pigsty that needs to be scrubbed not just for dirt, but for associations. After arranging this, I need to leave out some cash - they only deal in cash - so I walk to the ATM. It feels stabilizing to be at a bank, to be handling money. This time, on reentering the building, I ask the concierge if his overnight colleague heard any complaints about my unit. He doesn’t have anything specific, although he comments that a strange group of people left in the early hours. He doesn’t have a lot of information, but he says there was an older man who looked like a businessman, and others who didn’t look like that at all, so that his colleague was puzzled, and wrote down a description for possible future reference, as they’re told to do. He wants to know what I know. I tell him: “The older man you mentioned is a friend, I let him use my apartment while I was out for the night. I don’t know who the other people are. I think he abused my trust. That’s just how people are.” He throws in a story from his own life to support this observation, but I don’t listen to it.
I leave the money in its usual place on the kitchen island. I still don’t feel comfortable sitting in here. I stand on the balcony to check my messages, wishing now I had my work phone, if only so I’d have Cedric’s cell number. There’s nothing from Eliza, but today I’m almost surprised to find myself registering that absence; I might almost be noting the silence of a girlfriend from decades ago, or of a dead relative. It’s plain to me I can’t accomplish anything without going into the office. I exit the building, put in my earphones and listen to Bowie, to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. I remember having a recent exchange with someone about Bowie, but I can’t place when it happened. Listening to the album, I try to count how many creative shifts he’d undergone by the time he made it. Although it lies well within the first half of his career, it always seems like a kind of ending, a farewell to Major Tom and to his most consuming preoccupations with fashion and self-invention: his next album would be Let’s Dance, a new peak in popular success and accessibility. Marveling again at Ashes to Ashes and It’s No Game, feeling completely thrilled by their overwhelming presence in my head while at once remembering what came before and after, I feel the powerful possibility of reinvention, of returning to the world as I’ve known it with a renewed, glowing energy and stability, if that’s what I choose to do. By the time I arrive at my office building, momentum almost carries me into the elevator and up, as if on the premise that I’ll sweep into my office and resume as if nothing had ever happened. I’m alert enough though to realize this might not be quite sufficient, so I sit in the lobby as I did a day ago, watching and waiting for the right person or the right signal, still listening to my music.
Because of that, I fail to hear Seton come up from behind and greet me. He steps into my eyeline and waves; I mumble an apology and switch it off. “Bowie,” I explain, because that should be enough. “Old school,” he says, “I like it.” We swap generalities like old friends catching up. He asks about my night. I say: “Well, to tell you the truth, I spent it in a hotel with a much younger woman I didn’t even know this time yesterday.” He says: “Old school seduction, I like that too.” I say: “It’s a strange story. I’ll tell you about it once I know how it ends.” “How long will I have to wait?” he asks. I say: “In some respects I might know in half an hour. It’ll probably take longer though.”
He says: “I thought maybe you’d run away from me after all that alien shit I laid on you.” “On the contrary,” I say. I stand up so we can deal with this more equally. I ask: “Do you think the aliens are primarily responsible for causing chaos or for alleviating it? I mean, are they more likely to be found lurking around warzones and terrorist acts and great disruptors like Trump, or do they stay far away from trouble?” He says: “I think they probably worry about that themselves. Someone like Trump, they’d want to study him up close to get the best information. But how do you do that without becoming part of his machine and starting to facilitate the damage instead of just observing it? I think they probably try to follow the same prime directive that Star Trek had, to not interfere with natural development, not identify themselves. But natural development takes a long fucking time, so I could see them giving things the occasional small push, like introducing something new into a mouse’s cage.” I ask him for an example. “Something like the iPhone,” he says: “not such a big leap that you can’t disguise it as natural human progress, but big enough that they know it’ll give them something to study.” I say: “Maybe they miscalculated there, it sometimes seems like iPhones changed everything.” He says: “Yeah, maybe, I’m not saying they have perfect foresight, if they did the whole experiment would be unnecessary.” I ask: “What about at an individual level? I mean, would they get involved in something that only affects the lives of a handful of people? For example, would they entice a more or less average person to do something crazy, just to see how it plays out.” “Sure,” he says. He reflects a bit and says: “They’re probably more likely to do that than to plant the iPhone, actually.”
I ask: “Do you think they know when they’re being discussed?” He greets all these questions with the same straightforward enthusiasm. He says: “I don’t think there’s any way they could know every time. I don’t think there’s a surveillance system that could listen to every conversation on earth, in every language.” I say: “It’s like anything else though, you don’t need 100% coverage. They could use profiling techniques to close in on the most likely people.” “Sure,” he says, “that’s right.” He gives me a knowing smile. “You’re saying they would have profiled me as someone worthier of keeping an eye on. Lucky me. Hey there aliens. If you’re listening, you know I’m good with the whole thing. You can bring me into the loop. Hey, I’ll stay in the loop and never come back out.” He pretends to wait for a response. “Maybe there’s a time delay,” he says.
I say: “It’s as we said before - because there’s no evidence for any of this, we can explain it any way we want to.” He says: “You must see something to it though, or you wouldn’t be asking all these questions. I don’t think you’re doing it just to laugh at my expense. If you are, you’re pretty smooth about it.” “No,” I say, “I’m not laughing. I find it comforting if anything.” On top of my godlessness, I recoil from people who say they’re “spiritual,” or something to that non-denominational effect, and from any phrase like “triumph of the human spirit” or “food for the soul.” Some people find this cold, but I don’t see anything warm about drawing on undefined mysticism, or about denying the inherent facts and boundaries of one’s existence. Sometimes when people babble about what they’d do if they won the lottery, I want to hold them against the wall and demand: “Don’t you realize the odds that you already beat, just through the millions of minute evolutionary shifts that brought you here? What makes you think you ever deserve to beat the odds again?” But of course, the evolutionary miracle of consciousness is too strong: it demands that we deny its very reality, that we slip into airy substitutions, that we prioritize our baseless notions of miracles and connections over the miracles and connections we embody. I suppose it’s so widespread that it is indeed “the human condition,” but it seems to me a form of mass sickness; I don’t remember a time when I felt any differently about it. And here I am, finding something soothing in Seton’s unmoored, utterly malleable quasi-theories. For now at least, I don’t have what it takes to see all these people around me as outcomes and culminations; I’d rather see them as projections, perhaps even susceptible to dissolving as you walk through them, if you can only find the optimum entry angle.
He says: “Yeah, I find it comforting too. And at least I’m not ranting about Muslims and illegal immigrants.” “It’s true,” I say, “you make paranoia seem entirely appealing.” I walk to the elevator with him; we get in. We share it with six other people headed for four other floors, so there’s no repeat message in the lights; we exchange a regretful glance at this absence. In a low voice, I tell him: “If you don’t see me again, it’s because of the humans.” He doesn’t know how to take it, and I can tell he’s considering stepping off onto my floor again, but my exit is too quick and decisive. Charlmane plainly doesn’t expect to see me; she gives me the face she might have reserved for a long dead relative’s return from the grave. She watches me as I walk to her, seemingly worried I might vanish into the intervening air. “Oh my God,” she says, emphasizing every word. “You just disappeared yesterday. Cedric was throwing a fit. I’m supposed to call his office as soon as I see you or even hear anything about you. Some people said you just left forever and would never come back.”
I look at her as if in wry sorrow at people and their dumb notions. “Yeah,” I said, “the day didn’t go as I planned. But I’m here now. Go ahead and call Cedric’s office. I’ll wait.” She does that, relaying the news to Cedric’s assistant, listening to the response. She tells me: “He’s not in yet. Apparently he missed a breakfast meeting which isn’t like him. So now she’s worried he caught what you had.” “Looks like only one of us can have it at a time,” I say. “Well, if and when he shows up, I’ll be easy to find.” I walk to my office. Usually I walk past the rest of my team, so I can see who’s in, who’s jerking off; this time I exit the lobby a different way, to avoid them. My desk is covered in things to review, memos, post-it notes, deliveries. I scan my email on the desktop computer; it looks like a disaster. I head to the stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time up to the 40th floor. I’m about to burst into the empty office where I left the phone, but there’s a guy working at the desk with the door closed. I don’t have time to think about it, so I knock cursorily and enter. I say: “Hey, I’m from the corporate accounting group. I left something in this office yesterday.”
“I’m here on special assignment,” he says. “I checked the office already, there’s nothing here.” I’m thinking it must be a pretty high-level special assignment or I would have heard about it. If this had happened yesterday, I might have assumed I must be the object of the assignment, and he’s here to build a case against my being here, if not against my being anywhere at all. But it’s more likely he’s evaluating a possible deal, or looking at ways for the top guys to pay themselves even more money than they do now, or something like that. I say: “I know where it is.” I move to the desk; he lowers the screen of his laptop so I can’t see it. I open the drawer and retrieve the phone. “Got it,” I say. I’m already halfway to the door, but he says: “Wait, I need to understand this. Was that phone recording me in some way?” I say: “No, it’s not even on,” and I show him. He says: “This office is assigned to me and my special project. I don’t know who you are or why that phone was here or why you’re taking it away.” I say: “Of course you don’t know, I don’t know who you are either, I’m not interested in finding out.” He says: “You’re not leaving with that phone until I get to the bottom of this.” I say: “I’m literally leaving with this phone,” and then I do. But he comes out into the corridor behind me, running to catch up and reaching out to restrain me, yelling: “I need some help here! I need some help with this guy!” A few people pop out of their offices, not knowing what to do because they probably recognize me but not him, and then there’s Bob Baines, the CEO, sweeping into action like the warm wind that will soothe any wound. “Kevin,” he says to me. “I understand you’ve been causing us some anxiety. And now you still are, in a different form.” He looks quizzically at us both, seeing no more need to talk. I say: “You remember yesterday, I was in that office when you came by. I left my phone there. I came to get it back and this idiot threw a fit.” The idiot says: “His phone was at the back of a drawer, clearly placed there deliberately.” Bob says: “I’m not interested in this nonsense.” He tells the idiot to get back to work, and directs me to follow him to his office. Before doing so, I wave the phone in the air, as if letting the idiot view his scalp about to vanish into the distance.
In all my years here, I’ve only been into Bob’s office a handful of times: usually I talk to Cedric and he then talks to Bob alone, or else I encounter Bob in the boardroom, at the head of the oak playing-field of a table, framed against the city as if all its capacity and power emanated from him. His office is relatively small and unpretentious though. He doesn’t go to his desk now, but rather to a couch, which I’m certain has never been used for seduction. He has me close the door before I sit next to him. Regarding the idiot, he says: “Nowadays the board won’t sign off on anything unless the consultants waste a couple of trees writing a report on it. I don’t know what happened to trusting our own judgment. It’s all ass-covering.” He sighs, closing that off. He says: “Now, I want to understand exactly what’s going on with you and Cedric.”
Obviously I’m not going to give him that understanding, because I don’t have it myself, and even to tell him the things I do understand would take much more time than he’s allocated to this (probably only ten minutes, as that’s as much time a CEO can ever allocate to anything that doesn’t involve big deals or TV cameras). I think my best strategy is to run out the clock. I say: “So I don’t waste your time, tell me what you already know.”
He says: “I know I saw you up here yesterday morning. Shortly after that, Cedric talked to me about your trouble with the commission, and his worry that we might not be able to keep you. I advised him to do all he could to prevent that, as I know how much he relies on you. Not long afterwards, he told me that the source of your problems had killed himself, and that you’d gone missing. We weren’t sure how the two things were related, if at all, but knowing your reliability and steadiness, we became concerned. Our concern increased as you failed to respond to any messages or to turn up for anything in your calendar. I placed HR on high alert, insofar as HR has such a register, and instructed your staff to inform me or Cedric of any contact with you.” I suppose I should feel somewhat honored by his personal involvement in this, but I imagine it was primarily light relief to him, the equivalent of a game of computer solitaire between weightier obligations. “Late in the day,” he says, “Cedric told me he was going to your place, to see if that would accomplish anything. I expected to hear from him, one way or the other, but now he’s the one who’s absent, including an unexplained absence from a breakfast meeting today. As Cedric and I are usually in constant communication, this is even stranger and more worrying to me. But now you’re here, seeming rather as if nothing at all had happened. You can see why this perplexes me. Although I don’t know at all whether I’m looking at a corporate matter that concerns me directly, or at some personal matter that over-spilled its bounds.”
I say: “Addressing my own behavior, I can only apologize. I had the impression I was going to be fired, and I wanted to take time to think it over. I realize I could have done that in a more transparent and professional manner, but I was upset. I did see Cedric in the evening, and he did tell me about Jack Gardien. We spent a couple of hours together, at the most. I haven’t seen him since. I heard about his absence when I came in. That’s it.”
“No messages?” asks Bob, indicating the phone, still in my hand. “Perhaps you don’t know, as you’d left your phone in the back of a drawer.” I say: “When you saw me up here yesterday, I was distracted. I thought I was going to be fired, as I said. I left my phone here through a combination of being distracted and frustrated.” He says: “Well now that you’ve retrieved it, power it up and let’s see if you’ve heard from him.” I comply. While we’re waiting, he says: “I did talk to Cedric’s wife this morning. She didn’t seem overly concerned. She says it’s not unusual for him to be gone all night at short notice, with no explanation. I must confess I was surprised by that information.” He stares at me piercingly. I say: “Cedric and I aren’t close in that way, you know. I don’t know what he does at night, or why he does it.”
Bob gets frustrated, which I expect is uncommon for him, and then gets frustrated at feeling frustrated. He says: “I don’t doubt your relationship with Cedric is entirely professional. But there’s a coincidence here that’s too great to ignore. You go missing, then he goes missing. And there’s this association with a dead man. I understand there’s no suggestion of anything improper, but still, it looms large. If there’s anything going on that could damage this company, I need to know.”
My messages appear on my phone. I can see at once that several of them are from Cedric. I say: “No, nothing from Cedric. Not yet anyway.” Bob looks deeply disappointed, but not disbelieving. I say: “I agree it looks very strange, beyond coincidence. Maybe his disappearance is a response to mine, in a way I haven’t understood yet. There may be a lot that’s above my pay grade, as the phrase goes.” Bob says: “It shouldn’t be above mine.” I say: “I suggest I start my day and wait to see what happens. There’s not much else we can do.” Bob dislikes that suggestion, not that he has a better one. He says: “You know, Cedric’s due to fly to Lisbon with me tomorrow morning.” I tell him I didn’t know that; the top guys like to pretend their continent-hopping hardly registers. He says: “We have something we’re looking at over there. If he’s not available to go, you may need to fill his spot. Would that be plausible?” I interpret this as saying that I might swing within a couple of days from being as far on the outside as I’ve been for years to being deeper on the inside than ever before. It certainly seems to prove Bob isn’t harbouring any doubts about the plausibility of what I told him, or about my stability. I say: “Of course, whatever you need.”
“Good man,” he says. He gets up, starts moving back toward his desk. I make to leave, but then he says: “Is it something about finance and accounting that’s causing this outburst of instability? I always did think there must be something inherently unsatisfying about it.” I don’t know how to respond. He goes on: “Finance may be the life blood of an organization, but that also tells you its limits. No one remembers a person for the quality of his blood. It’s only worth commenting on when it’s cancerous or deficient. I always thought it might be a challenge to one’s ego, to work in such invisibility.” I say: “The metaphor has its limits though. If you eat right and take care of yourself, human blood just goes on circulating. In a company there’s always a new organ needing to be integrated, a diseased one needing to be taken out. It can take a lot of precision engineering to keep the blood circulating smoothly.” He says: “I certainly don’t mean to undermine the contribution. Maybe it’s because I find it difficult to focus on numbers, beyond the ones that matter to me. Top line, bottom line, stock price, that kind of thing. I tend to imagine that working so closely with numbers would be a form of slow starvation, whether one realized it or not.” This seems to me pure self-styled-action-man snobbery, or would be, if he believed what he’s saying. I take it as an expression of his profound unease about Cedric’s absence, that he’s casting out so randomly. Still, as he’s revealed something about himself, I feel it’s reasonable to reciprocate. I say: “It’s probably true that accountants are more reticent than lawyers or investment bankers or others in the big swinging dick league. But they’re close enough to see the dicks swing, and they have money of their own, so it’s inevitable that they watch and they wonder. Maybe that’s just a sideshow of regret to their real lives, or maybe it’s a poison that has to be neutralized somehow. I have aspects of my life that I wouldn’t discuss in so-called polite society. I think Cedric does too.”
“Certainly if you look at the direction of our politics,” says Bob, “money seems like an increasing evil. That’s a different point to the one you’re making, but it does cause me to wonder sometimes whether we leading capitalists haven’t been wrong about more than we’ll ever admit. There’s no question that we’re squeezing too much out of the present at the cost of any regard for the future. Do you have children, Kevin?” “No,” I say, “I don’t. I’ve never been married. And I never found myself having them by accident or anything. Another mistake accountants don’t usually make.” “I don’t have them either,” he says. “But I’m increasingly trying to live as if I did. That is, to feel the existence of a personal stake in the next generation.” He seems to be in danger of forgetting where he is, but then he remembers. “We’ll talk about that another time,” he says. “For now at least, we’re justified in taking care of our present. Be sure to let me know if you hear anything.” He walks to his desk, looking like a man already creaking from a tough day.
The idiot is hanging around the corridor, waiting for me to pass by again. He descends on me to say he’s sorry, that he didn’t realize I worked closely with Bob, that it was just a misunderstanding. It’s a pathetic display, but as his anxiety appears genuine, I behave graciously, saying he couldn’t have known my eccentric habit of leaving my cellphone in unoccupied offices. He’s excessively grateful for this, and I wonder what kind of personal disaster I’m glimpsing in him. I walk to the other side of the floor, to a sitting area that no one ever uses. I sit and review my messages. I have several hundred of one kind or another, perhaps a quarter of them actually deserving my attention, half of those needing a response. I have two texts from Cedric, both saying simply Call me, with a number. The first was at 6.10 am, the other a couple of hours later. There’s no point putting it off; I call right away. He answers immediately. “You kept me waiting,” he says. I tell him I only just retrieved my phone. He says: “I’ve made a decision.” I wait. He says: “I’m retiring, effective immediately. You’re the first one to know. You’ll be the only one who knows why. I need to change everything and now I know how to do it.” I say: “By hanging out with lowlifes?” He says: “By making new friends, embracing new experiences. Last night I did some things I haven’t done in years, and others I’ve never done at all. Some things that will add years to my life, others that will seriously shorten it. I think it’s a fair compromise.”
I say: “I’m all in favour of embracing change, but isn’t it a bit sudden? Couldn’t you change your life for maybe one or two days a week and see if it sticks?” He says: “What I have in mind won’t allow that. You can’t be a virgin during the week and a whore on the weekends.” I say: “Actually, maybe you can, if you’re on top of it.” He says: “I don’t intend to retain that much self-control.” I say: “You’re not literally planning to stick a needle in your arm and lie in a back alley until the end comes are you?” He chuckles but doesn’t actually deny it.
He says: “I’ll call Bob shortly and tell him this. Well, in his case I’ll simply say I have to step down. Maybe I’ll say it’s for health reasons. In the short term, I’ll recommend you step in. Some of it will be a stretch but you can manage. This assumes of course that you’re up for it.” I say: “Sure, I’ll do it. I just enjoyed a refreshing day off. I can jump back in.” He says: “I don’t imagine you’d be Bob’s choice as permanent CFO. I expect he’ll look for someone with a track record in financing, in treasury, in dealing with the street, that kind of thing. I could be wrong however. If you hit the ground running, perhaps it’s yours for the taking.” I say: “Well, for now I’ll just do what needs to be done.” It seems ridiculous to be discussing my career prospects against this background. I say: “What about the incident, the twenty thousand dollars?” He says: “You already know that’s my responsibility now. I guarantee you’ll never hear about it again. Categorize it simply as something you saw on TV.”
He says: “You know Kevin, when I look back on all this, I mean all of everything, I think it will be clear to me that you were a transformative figure in my life. I don’t know why you transgressed as you did, whether you wanted to be punished or even destroyed, but I hope you’ve come out the other side stronger for it. If you haven’t, well, perhaps then the possibility of that renewed strength transferred itself to me. It’s something I never foresaw in all our years working together.”
The call ends. I go back to my office. Kayla has arrived now and is at her desk. She tries to look pleased when she sees me, but I suspect she hoped I’d permanently self-destructed and that she’d find herself working for someone more grounded in the way she thinks of herself as being grounded. I think I’ve put up with her for too long. Getting rid of her isn’t my top priority though. She asks if I’m all right, if I’m going to be in all day. I tell her there may be some unscheduled interruptions, but for the most part we can assume things will go as planned. I tell her to reschedule everything I missed, although if I end up flying off to Lisbon, it’ll all have to be rescheduled again. I’m thinking constantly about Cedric, imagining him hanging out at the corner of Queen and Sherbourne with the down-and-outs, or in a crack den, unconscious in his own filth, or having his cock sucked by two hookers at once, maybe by two male hookers. Maybe that’s too colourful an interpretation of what he was telling me, although it seems as likely to me that it’s the opposite, that my life experience has been too sanitized to know what he really has in mind. If it’s true that something of myself transferred itself to Cedric, then these lurid imaginings might constitute receiving something in return; I feel unnaturally energized by them, and determined. I spend some time clearing off messages, sending out terse instructions and resolutions. People pop by to say hello, no doubt to check I’m alive; I make a point of seeming entirely at ease, as if I’d spent the day in a spa, something I’ve never actually done (I couldn’t even say with certainty what people mean, when they talk about spending the day in a spa). When Cristina appears, I tell her to come in and shut the door. She says: “After our conversation yesterday, I thought I wouldn’t see you again. I was depressed about it all night.”
I say: “I remember I was talking about connecting dots. Turns out I didn’t foresee myself how they’d be connected. As I said, I’ll tell you the story one day.”
“You told me you wouldn’t be working here anymore. You used exactly those words. How can something like that change so quickly?”
“I thought there was only one piece in play, I mean me. In fact there were several. I don’t mean to be coy. I’ll tell you something no one else knows yet. It’s Cedric who won’t be working here anymore. He’s quitting, out of the blue. I’m going to be taking on some of his role, at least in the short term.”
“Congratulations,” she says. “But I don’t like this. It feels all of a sudden like I’m working for a crime organization where you never know who will have been killed off since yesterday. Was Cedric trying to blame you for something? Is he a bad man?”
“No,” I say, “he’s just a man off on a new adventure.” I assure her everything’s going to be fine. After she leaves, I call Mary into my office. This time I get up and close the door myself, so that she feels subtly threatened. Returning to my desk, I allow her to ask me a few questions; I assure her I’m here to stay, that the rumours of my death were ill-founded. I say: “If anything, I expect to be a more vivid presence than I was before. Sometimes we just need to recharge. I feel I’ve accomplished that.” She says, in the slightly sarcastic way she has about her, “It can’t be a very extensive recharging exercise if it only took a day.” If I needed a push to continue, that would have provided it. I say: “Perhaps you need to recharge yourself, Mary. Maybe you don’t know it, it’ll be easier if you do, but you’re going over the line with someone on this team. I mean in terms of the attention you pay to her. Perhaps you mean it to be helpful and supportive, and perhaps it contains aspects of that, but there’s much else that’s oppressive and excessive. If you can’t modulate it, it’s better you not talk to her at all.”
Reflexively, without any consideration at all, she says “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” but she immediately realizes how weak that sounds, and doesn’t protest any further. She sits there like someone trying to prevent a volcano from erupting. I intend to give her the time she needs to come up with something else, but it’s taking too long, so I say: “We don’t need to discuss it even for one sentence more. I think you got the message, I’m confident you’ll act on it. If that’s the case, then as far as I’m concerned it’s over.”
She says, in a very small voice: “That’s very decent of you, Kevin. I do know what you’re talking about. I don’t think I knew five minutes ago, but as soon as you said it out loud, I knew.”
“We’ve all had times when we got carried away,” I say. “I know this from very recent experience.” I get up and move to another chair on her side of the desk, to emphasize our comradeship in this. “I also know how quickly things can turn around. I know this from” – I consult the watch I don’t actually wear – “from half an hour ago.” I add: “It’s important though to ask ourselves why we’re susceptible to some kinds of distractions over others. That’s the only way we can identify whether there’s anything we can fix.” If I didn’t care about staying inside the lines of workplace propriety, I think I could spend the next ten minutes throwing out things she can fix for starters – her dry, withered-looking hair; her fleshy chunk of a body; her clothes that others on my team wouldn’t wear to clean out a basement. She’s slightly younger than I am, but I’m convinced no one would suspect it. Even as I congratulate myself for that though, I damn myself for such smugness. Perhaps in this moment she’s closer to a true self-revelation than I am. Anyway, I say: “Let me know if there’s any way I can help.”
“I’d like to sit somewhere else,” she says. “For my own good. Where I won’t see her as often as I do now.”
“I’ll put that in motion,” I say. “You can sit where Brian used to sit, if you like.” It’s usually considered the worst workspace on the team, for allowing a prime view of people entering and exiting the washrooms, but she agrees at once. She says: “Also, I’ll take on the foreign exchange project.” She’s referring to something that’s become a joke around the team, a tedious wouldn’t-give-it-to-my-worst-enemy task that has to be done eventually, but never has to be done today. I say: “Mary, you don’t need to submit to self-flagellation. You’re too good for that project. At some point we’ll hire someone new and they can do it as a rite of passage.” She says: “That’ll just chase them away before they’ve settled in. I can do it faster than any new person. Please, it’s what I want.”
“All right,” I say, “but I’ll allow you the option of changing your mind later.” I retrieve the file from a drawer and hand it to her. She clasps it firmly, as if it holds the key to her new beginning. “I’ll set up a meeting to discuss with you,” she says, “once I’ve worked out a timetable.” “We’ll do it over lunch,” I say. She and I have never eaten lunch together in our lives, except on occasions when I’ve taken out the whole team, for which we’ve almost always been at opposite ends of the table. As she leaves, she says: “Sometimes you find yourself moving in the wrong direction. You know it, you know that just the slightest nudge will be enough for you to change, and yet you can’t do it without someone’s help. So thank you again for that.” I give her shoulder a little squeeze, something else I’ve never felt like doing before either. I wonder now whether every single person in my vicinity is waiting for such a little nudge, whether my grand purpose in life is to figure out those needs and to address them. This reminds me of something else. Even though I must have two hundred tasks of greater urgency, I call someone in human resources. I get a voice mail, but I don’t want to lose momentum, so I say: “This is Kevin in the chief accountant’s office. I’m calling about Chris Hedges, in my group. I’ve concluded it’s necessary to let him go. I haven’t laid any groundwork for it – no reprimands, no warnings or anything – but nevertheless he’s hit the limits of his capability, and we need to replace him with someone who can grow. This needs to be a top priority, so we can put it behind us and move on. Call me back, schedule a meeting, whatever we need to make this happen.” It seems to me that if I’m the new Cedric, even if only temporarily and for some purposes, it’ll be much easier to push through things like this, so I may as well exercise that power now.
Coincidentally, Kayla comes in to tell me Chris isn’t going to be in today because of some issue with his kids. When I do fire him, I suppose I’ll run a risk of being seen as intolerant of families, unsupportive of work-life balance, and so on. Maybe it’s true that I’m more sympathetic to unconventional choices and stresses. Anyway, I move on, the work absorbs me for several hours. I feel like I’m in intellectual flight – seeing solutions before I’ve even heard the full articulation of the problems, scooping up all pieces of a sprawling discussion and pasting them together into a workable exit sign, jumping into intellectual tunnels and identifying undetected sources of light. I can tell I’m surprising and impressing everyone, already shoving the previous day into the backs of their memories. In between meetings, Cristina looks in again and says: “You talked to Mary didn’t you, I can tell already. I didn’t think you’d get round to it for a while.” “I think it’s going to be OK with you and her,” I say. “You might even end up as friends.”
At around lunchtime, I’m summoned back to Bob’s office. He’s late for something and in a rush; I’ve never seen him look so disheveled or preoccupied. He says: “Cedric told me he talked to you already, he told you he’s out. It’s a huge loss to the organization, to me personally. What worries me most though is that it’s a big loss to him. I’ve known Cedric for a long time and this doesn’t make sense to me. I tried to persuade him to take a long vacation or a leave of absence, but he insisted on pulling the big trigger.” Bob looks like he took the resulting bullet himself. “I asked him what Leslie, his wife, thought about it, but he dodged the question. So then I called Leslie directly and he hadn’t told her a thing. All she had from him was a text message saying he’d been called away and couldn’t tell her when he’d be returning. It’s ridiculous to lose a CFO under circumstances like this. Completely ridiculous. What did he say to you about it?”
I say: “He didn’t tell me anything specifically either.” I can see that won’t be enough, so I go on: “I don’t know if he’s leaving his wife, leaving everything. I don’t think he’s doing this so he can work on his golf game. I think he has a bigger shake-up in mind.”
Bob says: “I once had someone quit on me out of the blue, somewhat like this. I only found out later he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He was too ashamed to tell me. I don’t think this is that kind of situation though.”
I say: “Well, it might have aspects in common. The sense of embarking on a final chapter from which there’s no coming back. The sense of shame. I’m only speculating.”
“I suppose you are,” says Bob. His assistant Linda looks in to remind him how late he is. For a second he looks like he’s going to fire her, just to remind himself he retains some kind of power. He says to me: “Anyway, it means you’re coming to Lisbon. Assuming there’s no problem.” I say it’s fine. “Talk to Linda about the arrangements,” he says. “We should only be away for two nights. We’ll have dinner together. We’ll talk about this, and much else.” He gathers up his things, then it occurs to him he doesn’t have my cellphone number; we never had a direct relationship that would have required it. We exchange numbers; I briefly entertain a fantasy of now being perpetually woken up by him in the middle of the night.
Cedric’s assistant is now forwarding invitations to me for various things he was supposed to attend, and messages he didn’t respond to; other people I’ve barely even heard of are trying to set up meetings with me, or are calling and texting just to see what I know. My calendar looks like a dog vomited all over it. I realize I’m ascending to a new level of busyness, in which I never have to apologize for anything. I suppose I should feel stressed and potentially overwhelmed, perhaps even resentful at what this is going to do to my life, but for now I feel shielded from the noise, the frustration, the dread. I feel lighter than I have in ages, almost ethereal, capable of bending time. Even though I have at least ten tasks claiming to carry an only-five-minutes-to-save-the-world level of urgency, I slip away from everyone, out of the office. I put in my earphones and start walking. I listen to Stevie Wonder at his most funkily celebratory, to some of the extended tracks from Songs in the Key of Life, and it’s hard not to sway in time and to sing out loud.
I enter the sandwich store. There’s a line of six people, and I patiently take my turn, switching off the music only at the last minute. Cindy doesn’t even see me until the person before me steps away and she starts on her mechanical welcome; then she laughs and beams. I order a vegetarian anything and a cookie, but I tell her I’m really only there to talk to her. Fortunately, the line dries up a few minutes later and we snatch a conversation while she runs around distributing orders. I tell her Cedric is out permanently and that for now I’m doing at least part of his job; I tell her I don’t need to worry about the other guys again and that I believe Cedric when he told me that; I tell her I’m going to Lisbon tomorrow, and that I wish I could take her with me, but that it’s not the right time to start grafting pieces of pleasure onto such business. She says: “You don’t need to apologize for that, why would you take me to Spain already?” I say: “You probably don’t realize this, and it’s not something I’m able to explain, but you’ve already helped me a lot, probably more than I know yet. If I look at causes and effects, you’re certainly not to blame for why I was in a mess, and you’re not directly instrumental in why I’m climbing out of it. And yet, I’m certain I only feel this good because of you. We’ve hardly done anything together, I mean, we certainly haven’t done anything, I don’t really know what you think of me, but I just wanted you to know you can ask for anything, we can do this any way you like.” At least one of the customers hears most of this, but I don’t care. Cindy doesn’t respond; six more people come in all at once, and I step to the side. I watch her at work, almost ghostly in her pallor, but not weak-looking, reticent and disconnected but projecting capability and certainty. I don’t know if she’d inspire many wild fantasies, but I’m certain she could substantially shut down the need to fantasize of others. I realize then how little I’ve thought of Eliza today, but once I’ve registered the realization, I move on from it.
I go into the kitchen to look for Ryan. He’s constructing a chicken sandwich; another guy is running around. I thank him for helping me out; I give him the hundred dollars I never got a chance to pay him, and also another hundred dollars; he accepts the bonus without comment. “It wasn’t very pleasant,” he said. “For a while I thought they were going to lock me up. I suppose it was a useful look at how the other half lives or whatever.” I say: “I hope it didn’t increase your anxiety about spreading Nazism.” He says: “That’s not such a joke. The people there mostly looked like drones. If you’d told me they were under some kind of mind control, I’d believe it.” I try to see the office through such fresh, skeptical eyes. “How do you think you look back here?” I ask, “when people catch a glimpse of you? There aren’t many jobs that allow people to function at their most animated.” “Maybe you’re right,” he says.
I say: “I didn’t want just to be a one-time user. I hope we’ll stay in touch. Maybe that sounds like bullshit but I mean it. I could be a useful contact, maybe. I do know people, sometimes even the right kind of people.” He barely looks up or considers it before responding: “All right man. I’ll let you know.” I feel comprehensively dismissed, no doubt along with the rest of the other half. It’s especially damning as I suspect the other half isn’t defined primarily by its money or its submission to corporate values, but rather by its failure on some broader scale of engagement, contribution or coolness. I want to win him over, but I realize that any further coaxing will just seem like ever-more desperate entreaties from an old man in denial.
So I let it go and I return to the front of the store, coming up behind Cindy, who interrupts her order-taking to turn around and to whisper: “I won’t bother going to my other job tonight. I’ll come to your place again after work. This time it’ll just be the two of us right?” I say that’s right, although then I feel I have to add: “I’m ninety-eight per cent sure that’s right.” That’s as high as you should ever go on anything that isn’t directed by the laws of science, especially right now when loose ends are still getting in my eyes. She continues with her work. I stand there for a few moments, enjoying the dynamic, but then I realize the customers probably think I’m the store manager, or a health inspector, and so it’s better if I move on.
I take my order to go, and out in the street I check my messages yet again, doing a rough mental sorting of them into tiers of urgency, concluding many of them are indeed highly urgent, which from this moment on I think I’ll redefine to mean “can wait.” I put my earphones and resume listening to Songs in the Key of Life as I walk back, and I even take a couple of detours on the way, to fit in a song or two more, before arriving back at the office and slipping into a different key for the remainder of the afternoon.
Six months later, I think the key term in my life is “acting.” I’m officially “Chief Financial Officer (Acting),” which of course signals to everyone that the “act” might end at any moment, to be replaced by a new reality with a different Chief Financial Officer who isn’t acting, because he’s permanent, because he’s beyond questioning, with a firmer grip on power. People regularly ask me when I’ll no longer be “acting,” on the assumption that I’ve done well enough to keep the job, without any qualifying asterix or question mark. I tell them I have no idea, and it’s true, because Bob and I haven’t talked about it for a long time, not since the weeks immediately following Cedric’s resignation. In fact I rather like the qualifier, because it allows me some distance, to flatter myself that my place in the uncool half of the population is ambiguous. Of course, looking at the hours I work, spread across late nights and early mornings and Saturdays and Sundays and days that were meant to be vacations, no one else would perceive an ambiguity.
Initially, I view the term as a gesture of respect to Cedric. It’s virtually inconceivable that he could ever come back, after leaving so abruptly, with so little regard for the transition process, followed by complete and unbroken silence, and therefore by more speculation about what he’s been doing during the silence than can ever be satisfied. Still, the very abruptness of his leaving means he’s still there, an image on all our retinas, and certainly on mine, as I sit in his office, surrounded by most of his clutter because I never got around to clearing it out, or to adding much clutter of my own. If I do become the Chief Financial Officer without qualification, it feels like Cedric should still survive in the structure somewhere, perhaps as Chief Financial Officer Father, in the way of the Queen Mother. But given the father’s absence, it’s easier just to leave things as they are.
Eventually I realize I also saw it as a reaching out to him, as a small form of life support. I realize this after it’s over, and Cedric is dead. Linda interrupts a meeting to tell me this. Her face is twisted out of shape; she has trouble getting the words out. She tells me they found him in Moss Park, a week earlier, with no ID and little money on him, covered in snow. She says it took several days to locate his wife because she was away. Bob’s also away in Asia, thirteen hours ahead and so presumably asleep. Linda doesn’t know what to do. She starts crying and I try to comfort her, but I’m very bad at it. I say: “Let’s remember the way he was,” and try to continue in that vein, but remembering the way he was only makes it more painful for her to contemplate the way he ended up. Then I switch tacks and tell her it was a choice he made with his eyes wide open. “Whatever he was doing these past six months,” I say, “it was a necessary part of his journey.”
I send an email to the board members and senior management, giving them the basic information, then another one to the rest of the staff, mentioning only that he passed away and noting his huge contribution to the company and to me personally. I send individual emails to various contacts. People start calling and messaging for more information. I cancel all my meetings. After a couple of hours I feel ready to call Leslie. I don’t know her well, and I’ve only talked to her once in the last six months, just about the disposition of various things I found in Cedric’s office. I’m assuming she won’t pick up, but she does. “Hello Kevin,” she says. “I thought you’d probably call.” She sounds entirely composed. I try to string something meaningful together. She says: “I’d like to see you. Can you come today?” I tell her I’ll be there in half an hour.
I call Cindy. She’s between classes – I know this because somehow I memorized her schedule. She reacts more emotionally than I expected; I wonder for a while if she’s thinking of someone else. I ask her if she’ll come with me to see Leslie. She says she’s not dressed for it but she agrees anyway. I leave the building and get a cab; I pick up Cindy at King and Jarvis, then we head up to Rosedale. We hold hands the whole way there. She admits to me that a couple of her friends were lurking to catch a glimpse of me, because they don’t quite believe I exist, or that if I do it must be some kind of sugar daddy thing and I would never be seen with her in daylight. It’s understandable: they spend a lot of time hanging out with her at our place, but I’ve never been there at the same time, I’ve always been working. “I guess they’ll see me at our wedding,” I say. “I promise you I’ll be there for that.” “Yeah,” she says, “but that’s probably a year away. After we get the dog.” I’ve told her several times the wedding can be tomorrow if she wants, that it doesn’t have to wait for our much-discussed but still completely theoretical dog. but I don’t feel like getting into that now. I tell her everything I know about Cedric. I don’t speculate on things I don’t know and she doesn’t ask me to.
Leslie’s house looks like it ought to be a dignitary’s official residence, set in grounds that speak of daily tending with nail scissors. You look at the outside and it wouldn’t be surprising to see horse-drawn carriages pulling up to it, to be met by rows of maids and butlers. Inside it’s fresh and modern, in a bland, magazine-inspired way. Now that we’re here, I wonder whether Leslie will see this as a bad time to meet someone new, but she seems happy to welcome Cindy, amused by her anxiety about not being better dressed. She asks Cindy about the tattoo on her leg – a poorly drawn flower I can’t stand to look at, and that Cindy can only ever weakly defend. Leslie says she often thinks of getting a tattoo, although she doesn’t explain why.
We sit in her kitchen; I get the feeling she spends most of her time in here. She brings us some water. She’s much larger than she used to be; she gasps every time she takes a step. She asks about our relationship. We tell her what we tell everyone, that one day I bought a sandwich and we got talking and one thing led to another. It’s a true story of course, but we don’t usually provide much detail on the things that led to other things. On this occasion, I tell her the day we met was also the last time I saw Cedric. I suppose that’s why I wanted to bring Cindy, although I hadn’t realized it until now. “It’s almost the last time I saw him too,” says Leslie. “He didn’t come home for several days afterwards, and when he did, it was only to collect some things. We never did have a conversation about what he was doing. Of course I knew he was seeing younger women, but then he always did, you know. I also knew he was taking drugs, but that wasn’t new either. I knew he’d been getting restless. I thought he was getting tired of work, tired of me. Now I think he was tired of life itself. He saw the opportunity to kill himself and he took it.”
I ask what she means exactly. She says: “I think he met some people and decided to give them the keys to his life. So that he could fuck and drink and warp his brain until there was nothing left. He went through several hundred thousand dollars you know, just in six months. Not even on hotels and cars and that kind of thing. The police told me he was living in a rathole. That must be how he wanted it. I assume he even intended to die out in the open, like the most wretched addict.” I can’t tell if she’s dry-eyed now because she’s exhausted her tears, or because there never were any.
I go back to her remark about the women and the drugs not being new. She says: “He liked prostitutes and he liked cocaine, and the combination of the two. He was very skilled at hiding it.” I tell her he’d certainly hidden it from everyone at work. She says: “He was bisexual too you know. He had many strange obsessions and ideas. He was certainly a racist, a white supremacist. He believed in the occult, or some such theories. Perhaps these things aren’t all true, perhaps some of them were just experiments. But even that would tell you something about his appetites.” I can’t help feeling vaguely envious – not of the specific attributes, but of the capacity. I don’t feel I have time to be fully sexual, even less bisexual, or to work out my views on anything. She says: “We lived largely separate lives, needless to say. It’s hard in the first place when your husband has a busy career.” She looks squarely and unsubtly at Cindy as she says that. “I barely like to drink, let alone the other things. I don’t have much of a wild streak to be honest with you. So naturally I was left behind. But in other ways he treated me well: financially of course, but also emotionally, if I really needed him. The big sorrow of our life was that our only son died in an accident. I don’t know if you knew about that.” I tell her I’d heard about it, but it happened before I knew Cedric, and we’d never discussed it. She says: “We also didn’t discuss it, not as we should have done. Our relationship was never the same after that.” She walks to a cabinet, picks up a framed picture, brings it over. It’s a young man like any other. Cindy studies it for longer than I do.
Leslie says: “I say it was an accident, but we’ll never really know. Actually it’s relevant to something I needed to tell you. Our son William was out late one night, coming home from a bar where he worked. He fell in front of a car and was run over. There were no witnesses except the driver, and he said it all happened too quickly for him to register. But he was at least certain that William didn’t jump. If it had been winter, with icy sidewalks, then perhaps we could conclude that he slipped. But it was summer. So I always thought he was pushed. Cedric didn’t think so, he didn’t want to believe it anyway. So that was another thing on which we disagreed.”
I take Cindy’s hand; it’s as cold and tense as everything I feel in myself. I’m telling myself that Leslie’s working up to the revelation that will cause everything to collapse in on itself, that I was the one who pushed her son under the car, although I know that’s impossible, that the events are separated by a decade or more. She takes the picture from Cindy and places it on a coffee table, positioned as if to allow the dead man to participate in the conversation. There’s an envelope on the table – she hands it to me. It came through the mail, although the name and address are barely legible. I don’t want to see what’s inside it, and so I don’t look, until she tells me I should. It contains a single sheet of paper, written in the same sad-looking handwriting. I strain to make it out. Leslie tells me to read it out loud.
I falter several times, and Leslie, already knowing the contents by heart, corrects me on several things. It says:
I owe you an apology for everything I put you through but there was no other way. I’m living the life I want to live but it’s not what anyone would call a good life and I shouldn’t be remembered fondly for it.
I’ve done several things that count as crimes and I want you to know about them so the record will be straight. A lot of them were the petty kind of crimes you carry out when you’re living as I am now, but no one cares too much about those.
Some of them were what they call the white collar crimes. I was involved in some insider trading especially with a man called Jack Gardien. He died before it came to anything.
The worst was that to avenge what happened to William I pushed a man under a car. His name was Tommy Queen. He didn’t die but I wish I had killed him.
I know I always said that what happened to William must have been an accident but perhaps I didn’t really believe that.
All my love to you and please try to forget about me.
I look at Cindy when I finish, and see fear in her eyes, or perhaps it’s the reflection of my own fear. I feel I’ve walked into a trap, although I don’t understand the nature of it. But if that’s true, Leslie doesn’t seem to be the one who set it; she’s plainly not motivated by calculation of any kind. She asks: “Does any of that make sense to you? What about this Jack Gardien? Do you know that name?”
“I do,” I say. “He’s dead now. He was certainly under investigation. The securities commission questioned me about it, that is they questioned me about whether I’d leaked confidential information to him. It never went anywhere.”
“So it is possible that Cedric was the one who leaked it.”
“If anything was leaked at all,” I say. “There’s no point even thinking about it now. It’s not remotely relevant to anything, if it ever was.”
She says: “I assume you don’t know anything about this other thing, of pushing a man under a car.” I shake my head, trying to look blank. She says: “I found the incident online. It was about six months ago. When I looked through everything, it in fact happened the day before Cedric left and started on this downward slide, if that’s the right term for it. So I suppose he did do this thing, I’ll never know whether it was spontaneous or planned, and then, I don’t know, maybe that was a kind of release, or a push, or a catapult. Whatever it was, he couldn’t come back from it.” We don’t say anything. She goes on: “The only odd thing is that according to the reports I found online, this Tommy Queen was pushed under a car at around midnight. But Cedric and I went out that night, it’s in my calendar and I remember it clearly. We went to a benefit dinner at the Carlu. There was a string quartet, later on a vocalist. We even danced a bit. I don’t think we were home until midnight, certainly not long before. So it’s hard to understand how he could have been responsible.”
I say, slowly and thoughtfully: “Why would he lie about such a thing though? Maybe even small discrepancies can explain it. Maybe you arrived home just a little earlier than you remember, maybe the incident happened a little later than the reports said. At that time of night, it wouldn’t have taken very long to jump in a car and drive downtown. It would have been strange behavior, but then it’s a strange thing for anyone to do.”
“I don’t even think we were asleep by twelve thirty,” she says. “I remember we were talking, just sharing gossip we’d picked up from various people.” She disappears inside her memories for a while. “I remember he was very tired, ready to fall asleep. I don’t think he could have been pretending. And although of course I wouldn’t know, I never had any reason to think he would leave the house after I went to sleep. If he wanted to go out, he wouldn’t have come home at all; he’d have made up a story about a last minute dinner or a meeting.”
Cindy and I continue to sit there quietly. Leslie goes on: “Are you sure you don’t know anything about this? How did you know it was downtown?” I need to rewind to catch that slip. “I don’t know,” I say, “it just sounded like a downtown kind of incident. And I think I do remember it myself on the news.” I shift and straighten up as if to signal a rebooting of the conversation. “Maybe he didn’t do it,” I say. “Maybe he paid someone else to do it. The ultimate responsibility would still be his. Maybe he saw it on the news and decided to take moral responsibility. You know, maybe he said to himself, I’ll take this on as my own, and then that facilitated everything that came afterwards.”
“It’s possible,” she says. “It all happened so quickly. Maybe he honestly didn’t remember by the end whether he did it himself or not.” I think she’s trying to place herself there as an observer, to peer into the darkness and discern the pusher’s face as Cedric’s, or as not. She says: “I’ve been wondering whether I should try to find this man Tommy. He’s still alive, according to this letter. I could hire a private detective. Those exist, don’t they? But maybe it wouldn’t achieve anything. Maybe he doesn’t even know who pushed him. Maybe he’s trying to forget and I would only cause him pain. Maybe I’d learn something I’d rather not know. For instance, maybe they already knew each other and Cedric did this to him because things had gone bad. How much more do I need to know about all that?”
Of course, I have a different set of uncertainties. Would Tommy keep quiet about me, now that Cedric’s dead? Would he see it as a chance to get another twenty thousand dollars out of me, or more? Even if he accused me, would anyone believe him? It’s certainly better for me if Leslie drops it. Even leaving aside the self-interest, I think it’s better for her too. I say: “It’s up to you of course. But I wonder what clarity it can ever provide. Either you’ll learn Cedric was telling the truth and the discrepancies can be explained somehow. Or you’ll learn he was lying or mistaken about this one thing, and then so what? It won’t change the other things you know about him. And if it does, as you say, it might be for the worst. Either way, it’ll be time you’re spending rooting around in the past when you could be moving forward.”
“You’re probably right,” she says. “I do have a lot to do. I’m going to sell this place. I’ve been here for twenty three years, but that’s enough. You wouldn’t be interested in buying it, would you?” I can’t imagine anything worse than living in an enormous old space where I’d probably keep losing track of Cindy and finding traces of Cedric’s ghost instead. “No,” says Leslie, responding to herself, “I’m sure you wouldn’t. It would be a good family home though, if you were thinking of that. Not to pry, but are you…”
Cindy says: “Yes, we’re thinking of it. But not right away.” In fact, I’m only ever thinking of it as something to be thwarted, or at least indefinitely delayed. I know it’s unwise not to resolve something so fundamental before heading into a marriage, but I’m gambling that she’ll evolve away from the idea, or that I’ll evolve toward it. In ten years’ time, she might be acquiring career momentum; I’ll probably be ready to call it a day. Maybe that means children will fall between the cracks, or maybe I’ll become the world’s creakiest hands-on father. I’m happy to accept the uncertainty and I know she is too. Cindy says: “Although I know we shouldn’t wait long, considering how old he is.” That’s obviously not entirely or even primarily a joke. Right now, our recurring bedroom dynamic of the younger woman wearing out the older man is amusing to us both, or at least we both pretend it is, but it’s not a joke that can run indefinitely.
Leslie says: “I don’t really picture you living here of course. I like the idea of the continuity, of passing on the place to someone we know. But then, you already took Cedric’s place at work. I suppose it would be too much to do it at home as well.” She’s quiet again, and frowning, as if following that train of thought to uncover further and darker connections between Cedric and me. I ask about her plans. She says: “I think I’ll spend most of my time in our place in Florida. Maybe I’ll keep a smaller place here. But as we’re talking now, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t be here at all.”
We talk about the memorial service. She asks me if I’ll speak; I say I will. She asks for help in locating some people she wants to get in touch with. We talk about the remaining contents of Cedric’s office; she says I should keep what I want and destroy the rest. She muses about setting up a charity in Cedric’s name; I tell her I’d be happy to help with that. Bob frequently tells me I should be on a charity board, to “round out” my public profile, regardless that he also tells me the biggest mistake I can make in my position is to stretch myself too thin. I’d rather stretch myself thin in Cedric’s memory than for any other cause. After an hour and a half, the conversation comes to a natural end. I summon an Uber; Leslie walks us to the door. She says to me: “I can tell you don’t want me to investigate any further. I know you’re hiding something. I think it’s out of kindness though. There’s really no point my looking back, is there?”
“For me at least, it seldom does much good,” I say. Leslie looks from me to Cindy and back again. She says: “You two embody looking forward. I should take my inspiration from that.” Cindy and I are quiet for much of the ride back. I think about the woman and the kid on the crosswalk, thirty years ago. Lately I’ve had entire blocks of days when I haven’t thought about them, and even when I did, it was usually just to register the wondrousness of not thinking about them. I wonder whether Cedric would have taken the blame for that too, if he’d known about it. I wonder whether, in some way I’ve never known about, it was in truth as much his fault as it ever was mine. I’ve never told Cindy about it, and I’ve never intended to, but I almost find myself telling herself now. Almost.
We get out of the car, outside the location of her next class. She says: “By now I almost forgot how we met. I mean, I remember you coming in as a customer, and that we had a connection, and that I basically moved in with you right away. I just wiped out all the memories we couldn’t tell anyone about. I don’t think we would ever have talked about them again.” I agree, although for different reasons: my mind as it exists now is almost entirely defined by the residue of those memories, by the obligation to carry them alone, never allowing a speck of them to contaminate anyone else. Without reviewing all the scenarios in my head for her, I tell her I think we’ll be fine whatever Leslie does. Cindy says: “If the worst comes to the worst, we’ll lie about when we met. I’ll say you were with me when it happened. They’ll never be able to prove I’m lying.”
“Thanks,” I say, “but I want you to be virtuous at all times. Except the times when I’m obviously trying to corrupt you.” I hug and kiss her, with my usual awareness that this may look incongruous to some observers, outright creepy to others. I tell her I’ll try to be home on time, but by now she knows this is meaningless, like wishing a blessing on someone after they sneeze. I watch her walk away. I sit and check my messages. Most of them are Cedric-related; it seems the rest of my work life put itself on hold. I have one message that startles me. I tell myself I’ll ignore it, but then I immediately place a call. She answers right away, as she almost never did before. “Hello,” says Eliza. “I suppose you’re surprised to hear from me.”
“I really don’t know,” I say. “It’s been a day of surprises. Cedric died. I just went to see Leslie. You know, his wife. I remember you met her a couple of times.”
“That’s what prompted me to call. I got an email telling me he died. I was on someone’s old distribution list I think. It reminded me to get in touch with you.”
“It reminded you,” I echo, the hollowness ringing on the line. “You shouldn’t have needed a reminder. I was here the whole time. Your disappearance was here the whole time. Did you forget you never said goodbye?”
“Maybe I did,” she says. “It all happened so quickly. I don’t think I remembered all the bits and pieces, you know, the ins and outs.” I’m confident I don’t love her anymore, and that I’m indifferent to most of what she might say or do now, but it appears she’s still capable of making me mad. Or maybe that’s a new capability, rooted in my indifference. I say: “I hope you remembered the main thing at least. I was waiting for you in a hotel. You never came, you never left a message. I had no idea how to interpret it. For all I knew you could have been killed. Then a week or two later you came into my place to pick up your things, when you knew I wouldn’t be there, so that’s how I knew you were alive. And there it is. The bits and pieces you forgot.”
I’m getting cold, so I enter the lobby of the building where Cindy’s having her class. This conversation, all it evokes and represents and connects to, it’s all far too intense to coexist with students and their transient anxieties, but on the other hand, perhaps I can draw on their relative lightness, extract something soothing from it. Eliza says: “All right, I’m sorry, I thought you knew. I thought I’d told you or maybe I thought Cedric had told you.” I’m not even surprised by now that Cedric is a participant in my deepest intimacies. I ask for more. She says: “I was going to come to the hotel, of course. I was getting changed. Then Cedric called. He said you were missing from work, not answering your phone, he wanted to talk to you urgently. I remember thinking he sounded very ominous, almost threatening, I didn’t tell him where you were. But then I was worried, or maybe scared. I decided to stay away.”
“Fine,” I say, “but not even to let me know…”
“I guess I just didn’t want to be a part of it. Maybe I could have handled it better. But after the initial flurry of messages, you stopped trying to get hold of me. I literally don’t think I ever heard from you again after that afternoon. So then I started thinking we both wanted it to be over. I did see you one time with another woman, a much younger one. So I thought, well, he’s fine.”
I don’t say anything. She goes on: “I know I didn’t treat you very well. I know you were frustrated with me, that you wanted more. I suppose you got used to the frustration. For me, it played to my sadistic side, but once it was over, I realized I didn’t feel very good about it. And I was getting more into the idea of just being with Nora, just being with a woman in general, so you had to suffer the fallout of that. The irony is though, devoting myself to Nora didn’t work either, it just felt off. So we broke up within a few months. I’m with someone else now, another woman. Still early days.”
She says: “The only other time I thought of contacting you was when I saw Cedric a few months ago. I was cycling down Sherbourne and I saw him hanging out in Moss Park. Seriously, I nearly fell off my bike. He was in the middle of a group, a woman who looked like a hooker, a bunch of Moss Park guys. Seriously, he could have been orchestrating a drug deal. I pulled over and watched for a while. He looked completely in his element, as they say. I mean, there was no distance between him and the others. He wasn’t a tourist, he was a part of it, maybe the main part. I Googled him and you – that was when I learned you had his job. I wondered, is this something I should tell someone about? Does his wife know, does Kevin know? But he looked so present, so absorbed into the scene. I thought, well, it’s his choice. So I rode on.”
“You were right,” I say, “it was his choice. It was a choice he made around the time you and I broke up. And although it probably wasn’t in the email you received, it was a choice that killed him, I assume. Which he also wanted to happen. I mean, I don’t know of course that he had a specific vision for his death. But I think he wanted to jump into that life and let it play out.”
We swap a bit more basic information, then I tell her I have to go; as I say it, I realize that was nearly always her line. “One other thing though,” I say, “I’m getting married, to that same girl you saw me with. Don’t have a date for it yet, but it’s happening. She even has a ring.”
“Wow,” says Eliza. “Well, you’re very lucky. She’s pretty. And of course young. Sorry, those words sound skeptical. I’m not though. I know you wouldn’t do this unless she was entirely right.”
I say: “She’s not entirely right. But it does seem like the thing to do. People think it’s living a fantasy, to be with someone so much younger. The truth is, it’s a big challenge. The energy level is different, the references we carry in our heads. I’m often aware of how relatively little she’s lived. She doesn’t have that much to draw on. But she has good instincts so that helps. And she’s growing up fast. I expect you’ll meet her one day. Maybe I’ll invite you to the wedding. Maybe we’ll have lunch before that.” I’m about to suggest tomorrow or the day after, but I realize I should slow down. “Sure,” says Eliza. “Well, I’ll let you go. Sorry again.” “That’s all right,” I say, “it was all for the best.”
Actually I see her just a few days later, at Cedric’s memorial service. It’s a standing-room-only event; I’m impressed and a little moved, even if over half the crowd is from the office, past and present. It’s hard to maintain an air of gloom when you’re catching up with so many people, but maybe gloom isn’t how these things are done any more. I wouldn’t know: it’s the first such event I’ve attended in twenty years. There’s a contingent from Cedric’s final chapter, maybe some of the same people Eliza said she saw him with in Moss Park: they occupy a couple of rows near the back. I’m sitting right up front, and I don’t see them until I go up to speak. Staring at my notes, I begin: “I only knew Cedric for about five years, but it’s fair to say I owe him as much as I owe anyone, perhaps more.” I pause, scanning the room from left to right, and that’s when I see Tommy, sitting on the aisle, staring straight ahead. I jerk my head away, and that’s when I see Eliza a couple of rows behind him, also on the aisle. My first thought is that they coordinated their attendance and their seats, and that if I keep looking along the aisle, I’ll go on seeing one problematic face after another, like spikes on a highway. So I look back to my notes, and after that I barely look beyond the first few rows; I hope this comes across as deep immersion in my thoughts and my memories.
At the end, I say: “Many of us know that to the very end, Cedric was experimenting with his life, looking for new experiences and directions. We didn’t all understand the choices he made, and we might wish he’d made different ones, but there’s no question they were his own, made with his eyes open and his head high.” At that point it seems disrespectful not to hold my own head high, so I look up and see them both again. I don’t see any sign that Tommy recognizes me; he looks jittery and strained. Eliza’s expression doesn’t betray anything. I return to my seat, next to Cindy, and hold her hand tightly through everything else.
At the end, we hang around talking to people, and are almost the last ones to leave. I take a last look at the coffin; he’s being cremated later, but Leslie says she wants to witness that alone, except for Cedric’s brother. I didn’t know Cedric had a brother, and somehow I miss getting introduced to him. I step outside very cautiously, as if afraid of air and light; Cindy is laughing nervously at me. Tommy is gone, Eliza is gone. “That’s it then,” I say. “It’s still pretty early. We should do something.” Cindy says: “Like hang out in a mall? See a movie?” She laughs at my unconvincing show of considering these options. “You know what?” she says. “Don’t worry about it. Go back to the office for a few hours. I need to do some studying too. Later on we’ll get drunk.” I agree at once; we kiss before we go our separate ways. But as it turns out, I end up working later than I planned to, and I go to bed with her without drinking anything at all.