BUT I'M GOOD WITH FACES
by Jeff Somers
I. Stuart’s Retirement Party
Everyone was crowded around the bar, making themselves heard, waving around glasses and cigarettes carelessly, making their points. The restaurant was largely empty; it had been rented for the evening and half the office had already paid their respects to the host and left for the evening, avoiding the vaguely embarrassing dregs of the event, those blurry hours when it was high time you left and yet you remained, rooted to the spot, smiling too much and far too tolerant. The die-hards formed a warm, steamy knot near the beer taps, and were eyed anxiously by the exhausted bartender. They were separated from the dining area of the restaurant by a slim divider of thatched plastic, and their conversations spilled through it and filled the whole space.
In the dining area, Stuart Maddlen sat alone, smoking the last cigarette of a pack that had been fresh at the beginning of the evening. He stared out the window near his table, the cigarette burning silently between two fingers and held, listlessly, only inches above the stuffed ashtray. When two round, red-faced men broke away from the crowd and approached the table, beaming and tugging their overcoats on, he didn’t notice them until they were close enough to touch him. Blinking, he turned with a start and jumped.
“No need to stand up, Stuey, old man,” said one of the men, patting Stuart on the shoulder. “Just heading out, wanted to thank you for a lovely time, and wish you luck.”
“All that jazz,” said the other.
Stuart stuck his cigarette into the corner of his mouth and half-stood, reaching out to shake hands. “Glad you enjoyed yourselves, fellas. Can’t recall your names, but glad you made it.”
The two men shook his hand in turn, and then lingered for a moment, beaming. Finally, the first one said “So, how are you going to spend all that money?”
“Come back and throw us parties every week, maybe?” the second man chimed in. The two men laughed in sync. Stuart smiled and stared at them for a moment, and then laughed too.
“Oh! Oh, I see. Sure, sure. Love to. Have your people call the people I’m about to hire, and we’ll draw up contracts, okay? Aces.”
“Seriously,” the first man said, pausing. “Good luck to you.”
Stuart nodded and remained half-standing, cigarette smoke getting into his eyes, as the two men staggered off to the exit. Then he sat down heavily and plucked the cigarette from his mouth, tapping off the ash. He stared at the ashtray for a moment.
“There’s no way I smoked all those cigarettes just tonight,” he said quietly, to himself.
He glanced over at the knot of people at the bar and leaned back in his chair, extending his arm to keep the cigarette hovering over the ashtray. As he watched, a young woman broke away from the pack and walked briskly if unsteadily towards him, carrying a glass of wine lazily, low by the hem of her dress. He watched her unhappily, shifting in his seat. As she sat down at the table across from him, setting her glass sloppily on the table’s corner, he snuffed out his cigarette.
“Do you have any smokes?” he asked before she could say anything.
“In my purse.” she replied immediately. “Help yourself. Why are you hiding over here?”
His eyes scanned the table. “I don’t see your purse.”
She looked around, seemed to discover her wine glass for the first time and plucked it up. “Oh, well, then I guess no.”
She took a gulp of wine. “Listen, I’m pretty drunk, so I have to ask you flat-out, okay? Why are you spending your own retirement-slash-I’m-rich-as-hell party sitting by yourself in a corner?”
He smiled faintly. “Deb, this is the worst thing that could have happened.”
She frowned. “No, Stu, it isn’t.”
“Yes it is. The lottery, Deb? The fucking lottery? I needed change of a ten to buy . . . something, and so I bought a lottery ticket. Don’t know why, except the pack of gum was fucking gouge-priced at seventy-five cents anyway. And here I am. The universe is making fun of me.” He shook his head. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“So you throw yourself an expensive, boozy retirement party . . . why? To sit here and be miserable? To rub it in? Are you trying to be aloof, over here, the newly minted millionaire? Because, if that’s it, you’re doing a sucky job of it.” She sighed, leaning back. “You just look unhappy.”
His eyes slid to the people by the bar. “They don’t even know I’m here, Deb. No one does, except you. They couldn’t care less, only that they’ve got an open bar, and a buffet line, and a reason to stay out and get drunk. They don’t care about me.”
“Well, jeez, Stu. You invited them. Maybe you should have made caring about you a prerequisite, huh?”
He looked at her steadily, and she made a wide smile appear on her face. Then he looked away and stared out the window.
“Hey,” she said, dropping the smile. “Hey-c’mon. Don’t be such an ass. Jesus, you just won millions of dollars. How can you be depressed?”
He looked back at her, and leaned forward. “You’re right, of course. I’m being silly. So I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you’ll go outside and buy me a new pack of cigarettes.”
She looked at him, and then turned slightly, slumping back in her chair and draining her glass. “Don’t be an asshole.”
He smiled incredulously. “I just offered you ten thousand dollars and I’m an asshole?”
“Yes. You’re just being mean.” She stood up, leaving her glass behind. “I don’t know what happened to you, Stu. When you started here, you were nice. I liked you. Even before you won all this money--for a long time now--you’ve been different.”
He watched her walk away and rejoin the crowd at the bar. Dimly, he was aware of a figure approaching from the direction of the kitchen, and he turned to watch a short, politely smiling waiter approach.
“Is everything satisfactory, sir?”
Stuart sighed. “I need a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of Early Times,” he said.
“Certainly. Anything else?”
Stuart blinked, unused to that kind of solicitude. “No, thank you.”
“Very well.” The waiter turned and walked off in the direction of the bar. Stuart decided there were advantages to having money. It was like tipping well at a bar, he thought. It got everyone’s attention, and a lot of buy backs. He watched the waiter fight his way through the crowd to the waiter’s station, consult with the bartender, and then return slowly, with his tray laden with the requested items. He bowed slightly as he set the bottle and cigarette pack on the table, along with a fresh glass and a small bin of ice.
“Anything else, sir?”
Stuart smiled thinly. “No, thank you. I am working on reducing my needs as much as possible.”
The waiter did not react. He merely bowed and walked away.
“You’re like fucking royalty, Stu.”
Stuart glanced up and waved his ex-boss into the seat Deb had just abandoned.
“Hey, Jerry. Have a snort with me. I’ve only got one glass, though.”
Jerry sat down heavily, and jiggled the ice and liquor in his own glass. “Way ahead of you, champ. I don’t need you to buy me any drinks.” He leaned rakishly in his chair and looked around the restaurant. “I see you chased that fine piece of ass Debbie Muller away from here. You against gorgeous little brunettes with a few glasses of wine in them?”
Stuart rubbed his eyes. Jerry was tall and broad, with thinning blond hair and a permanently flushed face. His stomach had grown out of proportion with his body, which was still slender and muscled. His gut, however, hung over his belt in a comfortable way, huge and pulsing with absorbed energy. Stuart had worked for him for three years.
“No, Jer, just not interested.”
Jerry nodded, still scanning the place. “I hear you. Guy like you, with all this money, pussy’ll be hanging off you like nothing doing. You’ll be swamped with chicks looking to give it up. Why start small? Life’s short. Go for it!”
Stuart sighed and cracked open the bottle of Early Times. “Have a toast with me, Jer. Wish me luck.”
Jerry finally oriented on Stuart, and smiled, holding out his glass. “Best of luck, buddy. Come by and take me out for expensive lunches once and a while, what say?”
Stuart dropped an ice cube into his full glass of bourbon and clinked it against Jerry’s. They each sipped their drinks, and then Jerry turned back to observe the crowd, tapping his wedding ring against his glass to some private, unheard rhythm.
“So, you wouldn’t mind if I made a play for Debs, right? Seeing as you’re too good for her now, and all? She looks easy to me, tonight.”
“Sure, sure,” Jerry said mildly, and then turned suddenly. “Does that bother you? You seem unhappy about it.”
Stuart waved at him, leaning back in his chair. “Go for it, Jer. I don’t care. I don’t care about anything anymore.”
Jerry nodded, standing up. “I wouldn’t, either, I had your kind of luck.” He paused, half-turned away, and then leaned down to speak softly. “Listen, take my advice, buddy: disappear. Get a lawyer and a financial manager and move somewhere and don’t let anyone know where for a while. You just got rich, overnight, and a lot of people are going to show up looking to leech something from you. You think it’d be easy to ignore them, but it won’t. Trust me, you’re going to want your privacy for a while.”
Stuart looked up at him for a moment, and then nodded, once, a smile playing across his face. “Thanks.”
Jerry winked. “No problemo. Gonna go see if Deb’s feeling her oats tonight.”
Stuart watched his former boss walk off, one hand dragging his drink, the other wrapped possessively around his gut. Stuart didn’t understand how they could be so close in age. He didn’t understand how they could be the same species, but then he felt that way about most people.
He watched Jerry join the crowd and find Debbie, who was already halfway through another Martini, and looked puffy and flushed. She glanced over at Stuart as Jerry arrived, his mouth working, his eyes smiling and predatory, and for a moment Stuart looked back at her. He raised his glass to her and winked. She looked away, up into Jerry’s face, and smiled.
After a moment, Stuart looked back out the window.
II. Stuart’s Apartment
It was dark, perfectly dark, and then there was a rectangle of dim, weak gray light framing Stuart, who pocketed his keys and flicked on the kitchen light in one smooth motion. In his gray suit and opened white shirt he still looked fresh and alert, although the clock read somewhere between three and four in the morning, and he still had the almost-empty bottle of Early Times in one hand. He stepped into his apartment, closed the door behind him, and set the bottle carefully on the table, next to a crisp white envelope with the word ANYONE written in black block letters. He picked up the envelope and stuffed it into his jacket pocket, turned, and went into the bathroom, shutting the door gently behind him. After a moment, the water began running, but it couldn’t disguise the sound of retching. This went on for a few moments, and then the water stopped. Stuart emerged looking gray and grim, and sat heavily in one of the three wooden chairs around the kitchen table.
“Jesus,” he murmured.
He pulled the envelope from his pocket and stared at it. It was unsealed, and he opened it carefully and extracted a single typed sheet of paper. With watery eyes he read through it, and then folded it slowly, returning it to its envelope. He stared at the envelope for a while, silently, and slowly his head nodded forward and he fell asleep.
Stuart twitched and opened his eyes, and immediately fell forward so that his face hit the table with an audible smack, and commenced moaning. From this new position he studied the clock on the wall, now tilted sideways, as he felt his stomach attempting to climb up through his throat, dispelling the rumor he’d clung to that throwing up before passing out would ameliorate the subsequent hangover. The clock smugly reported that six hours had passed, and as Stuart cataloged his pains, he went through a confusing ten second period wherein he thought he was late for work, and then remembered that he had quit his job and didn’t have to go to work and then remembered that he didn’t have to go to work because he’d quit because he would be receiving a huge amount of money in the mail every year of his life. This remembrance granted him about three seconds of feeling warm and well-loved, and then the walls of this good feeling were stormed by a wave of massive nausea made worse only by his uncertainty about making his body work properly to gain entrance to the bathroom.
In one awkward spasm he was up and turning for the bathroom door, an unusual sound of misery burping from somewhere inside of him. He slammed the door behind him and for some minutes only the sound of increasingly weak gasps could be heard from behind it. Finally, he emerged, shaking slightly and looking very pale. He resumed his seat and just sat there, breathing hard, for a moment. He looked at the envelope again, and then looked away.
He pulled himself up through some invisible strength, and staggered into the living room, which was a huge room, really, with high, raftered ceilings and white walls that went up into shadow, the opposite wall almost completely glass, one large window that showed the city sprawling away in frozen waves. It was immaculately clean, the furniture tidied, not a mote of dust visible anywhere. A wooden chair from the kitchen sat in the middle of the room, alone, a coil of heavy rope on it. Stuart walked past it without a glance and made for his bedroom door, moaning low in his chest, his shoes making no noise on the green rug.
For a moment, Stuart was in his bedroom, and the rest of the apartment was empty.
He emerged, shuffling with an old-man gait, still moaning. He noticed his answering machine on the small desk by the window, a blinking red number 21 on it. This made him pause, and he ran a hand over his sweat-damp face, staring at it.
“Holy moly,” he muttered, and then continued muttering it, over and over again, as he shuffled into the kitchen, where he began the laborious process of making himself coffee. His hands shook badly, and sweat was pouring off of him, resulting in a lot of spilled water and one broken mug, but he finally had a pot brewing when someone knocked briskly at the door. He dropped into one of the kitchen chairs and pushed his damp hair out of his face. “Who’s there?” he called out weakly.
“Deb,” she called from the hallway. “You’re alive?”
He paused, his hand halfway down his face, and then stood up shakily. “One sec, okay?” he said, so low he didn’t think she heard him. Another brisk set of knocks, and he closed the door between the kitchen and the living room and then shuffled over to the front door, pulling it open. Debbie stood, her hand poised to knock again, in a pair of jeans and a thick-looking sweater, her hair pulled back in a tight pony-tail. She looked Stuart up and down.
“Wow, you look really, really terrible.”
Stuart blinked. “Don’t sound so happy about it.”
“No, really: you look like you’re about to fall over. Are you okay?” She sniffed the air. “Is that coffee?”
He shuffled to the side and swept an arm down along his body. She smiled and stepped into the apartment, looking around.
“I’ve never been in your place, Stu. I feel so inappropriate.”
He shut the door behind him and leaned against it. “We’re not employees anymore. Well, I’m not. Nothing inappropriate about it.”
“It’s only been a day, Stu,” Deb replied, sitting down at the table and running a finger along its surface. “I still think of you as my old boss, in some ways. Probably always will.”
“How horrifying,” he said, checking the coffee. “Uh, for you, I mean, of course.”
She smiled, watching him from beneath her eyebrows. “Um-hum. Are you okay?”
He turned and leaned against the counter, thrusting his hands into his pockets. He hoped the counter would help hold him up, because his legs felt weak and unreliable. “Fine. Hungover, but still alive, and rich as hell. Why do you ask?”
She studied him for a moment. “Well,” she said finally, “for one thing you sat alone through your whole party, which was strange, and drank almost an entire bottle of booze by yourself. When a group of Concerned Citizens tried to offer assistance to your soused self, we were rebuffed pretty harshly. You kept saying it didn’t matter if you got hit by a bus, that it didn’t make any difference.” She sighed. “So I thought I’d pop in at a decent hour and check up on my new millionaire friend, and here you are in yesterday’s clothes, looking kind of pasty and smelling pretty sour.” She paused and looked at him steadily. “You okay?”
Stuart looked down at the floor. “Funny, I just became unbelievably rich, and I can’t seem to convince people that I’m okay. Coffee?”
Lips pursed, she nodded. “Why not? You know what I’m wondering, though? I’m wondering why there’s no one else here.”
Stuart had turned carefully to make coffees for them. Every movement seemed to stir up nausea and regret, and the thought of shuffling to the refrigerator to retrieve milk made him giddy with despair. “I live alone, Deb.”
“You won the fucking lottery, Stu. I’d imagined the place crawling with predators, and you ordering bottles of Rye in to your motel room, only going out at night.”
“You can ask them to keep your name private. Didn’t you read the papers? I’m a ‘white collar worker from Bayonne’.”
“Born and bred. Seemed close enough.”
“You poor soul.”
He brought two cups of coffee to the table and set them down. “How do you take it?”
“Black’s fine, thank you.”
He sat down heavily and spooned sugar into his own cup. He glanced up at her steady gaze, and he frowned. “What?”
“Sorry.” she shook her head. “You just really do look like complete shit.”
He shrugged, sipping coffee to see how it sat with his body. “Mild alcohol poisoning. Unpleasant, but not fatal. I just need to hydrate and rest. Overdid it, is all, and I’m not a kid anymore.” He winked over his upraised mug. “Don’t worry. Everything’ll be better by tonight.”
She picked up her own mug and inspected it carefully. “Tonight? What’s happening tonight?”
He winked again, and then set his coffee down suddenly. “Oh! I almost forgot. Wait here. I have a surprise for you.”
He pushed himself up out of his seat and disappeared into the interior of the apartment. Debbie sat with her coffee and let her eyes roam over the kitchen. At first it had seemed quite clean and neat to her, but now she thought it looked soiled, as if dirt was simply hidden beneath a veneer of neatness. Her eyes fell on the envelope, addressed to "anybody," and she stared at it until Stuart burst back into the room, carrying a beautiful, ornately carved chess set.
“I want you to have this,” he panted, setting it down on the table. “It’s a gift.”
She stared at it. “Jesus, no, Stuart! You couldn’t stop talking about this set when you got it. It’s expensive!”
He shrugged, sitting down in front of his coffee again. “I’m rich.”
“And you love it.”
He waved, sipping coffee. “Nonsense. You don’t love things, you love people. Now, please take it. I want you to have it. I’ll have a new one made from solid gold, or something. Something really extravagant, really obnoxious, okay?”
Debbie reached over and traced a finger along the fine wood of the board. “I don’t even play chess, Stuart.”
“Then learn! Why not? C’mon. I’m feeling extravagant. I just won a lot of money.”
She smiled. “Then give me your TV.”
He nodded, stirring his coffee distractedly. “Go ahead. Take it.”
The smile faded from her face. “You’re kidding, right?”
Stuart leaned back in his chair, cradling his coffee in both hands. “No, go ahead. Take anything you want. I don’t need any of it any more.” He took a sip from his coffee and looked up, blinking in surprise at her steady gaze. “I’m rich,” he offered, smiling.
Debbie stood up. “Look, I’ve obviously caught you at a bad time--”
“No-not at all!”
“I came by to make sure you were okay. You’re hungover, but okay. Look, don’t give me anything right now. If you still want me to have the chess set later, fine. But I’d like you to get some rest and think about it.”
He set his coffee down and nodded at her. “Okay, Deb. Okay.”
She opened the door and paused. “See you later, Stu. Maybe we can have a drink some time when you’re recovered.”
He nodded again. “Sure, sure.”
She shut the door gently behind her, the lock clicking into place. After a moment Stuart could hear the thump of her shoes on the stairs.
“No rest,” he said softly, picking up his mug of coffee again. “No rest for the wicked.”
III. Stuart’s Neighborhood
“Hey, Professor! What’s up?”
Stuart looked up from two bottles of bourbon, one in each hand, and nodded. “Nothing, Jimmy. How’s business?”
Jimmy rubbed his stomach, which was at least half his entire body mass. Stuart had never seen Jimmy standing. The fat proprietor of Jimmy’s Liquors was perpetually seated on a stool behind his counter. Stuart couldn’t even imagine the man moving--the physics involved were beyond him.
“Not bad, for a Thursday afternoon. You get fired or something? Man comes in on a workday looking to buy booze, I think, maybe he got fired, needs to do some thinking.”
“Fired, no,” Stuart said, returning his attention to the bottles. “Thinking, yes.”
Jimmy didn’t say anything else, just watched Stuart gather bottles together, placing them carefully in the little plastic bin provided by the store. When Stuart brought them up to the counter, Jimmy looked from the bin to Stuart. Stuart was still wearing his clothes from the night before, and grinned back at Jimmy, his face ashen, unshaven, and cast with evil shadows.
Jimmy scowled. “You sure you didn’t get fired?”
Stuart put everything he had into his smile. “Sure, chum. No worries. I quit.”
“All right, Professor,” Jimmy sighed, ringing up the liquor. “Am I invited to this party, or what? You can tell me all about that Roman bullshit you were telling me last week.”
Stuart smiled, watching the bottles be stuffed into brown paper bags benignly. “Not Roman. Old English. Beowulf. Grendel.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, tapping numbers into the register. “That’s interesting shit.”
Stuart brightened. “I’ve got the book in my apartment. Nice edition, leather bound. You can have it. I’ll bring it by later.”
Jimmy paused to frown. “It in English?”
“Yes. It’s kind of stiff at first, but you get used to it. Keep in mind it was written almost a thousand years ago.”
Jimmy finished ringing up the purchase. “Sort of like old movies, when they talk all funny and shit, huh?”
Stuart nodded. “Sort of. Same principle.”
Jimmy took the proffered money. “That’s cool. I like old movies. Don’t drink this all at once, Professor.”
Stuart gathered the large bag and tucked it under one arm. “Keep the change, Jimmy.”
“There’s like fifteen bucks here, amigo.”
Stuart nodded. “Sure, sure. Aces. I’ll drop that book off later. Don’t sell booze to any kids.”
Jimmy watched him exit the store, and then looked down at the change still in his hand. He shook his head and stuffed it into his pocket.
Mr. Mittra was arguing with several other Indian men while Stuart browsed the refrigerated cases, shopping for soda. Cradling his bag from Jimmy’s in the crook of one arm, he fished two bottles of tonic from the case and balanced them carefully on top of the bag. He half-listened to the argument, which was in a language he didn’t understand and had been going on, he thought, for the past two decades, in the midst of packaged foods past their expiration dates, smudged newspapers, and the smell of eternally burnt coffee brewing behind the counter and sold for fifty cents a cup. Stuart had never bought a cup of coffee from Mr. Mittra, the smell being enough to warn him off of it, but a lot of the old neighborhood duffers, Spanish and Irish and Black men who wore old stained workclothes but never seemed to work, bought the stuff all day, standing around various corners and drinking it while they discussed whatever it was that old retired duffers discussed.
The arguments in Mittra’s grocery were always loud and verbose, with two or three men speaking at once at any given time, each of them standing with their hands in their pockets, talking without pause. Stuart liked to imagine that it was One Argument, unbroken and undiminished over decades, passed on from Father to Son, taken up like a cause by opposing camps who knew each other by subtle signs and codes. He imagined them spotting each other on the subway, in a barbershop, and just picking up a thread and launching into it. He liked to imagine that Mittra’s was the center of the Argument Cult, where new interpretations and shadings were introduced and either approved or deprecated according to accepted canon.
Whenever a customer approached the counter, Mr. Mittra would break off the argument abruptly and turn, smiling, to the uninitiated. Stuart had noticed that while other Indian men hung around the store to argue and occasionally could be seen drinking cups of the bitter, burned coffee, he’s never seen an Indian person purchase anything of substance from Mittra’s.
He lurked in the rear of the store, lingering over bottles of soda and snack foods, listening and letting his mind wander. The insistently loud disagreement, endlessly overlapping, was lulling, and he kept snapping back to attention, realizing he hadn’t moved in some moments, just standing in front of the potato chips. Shaking his head, he chose three bags quickly and approached the counter with his bottles and bags, balancing them all carefully.
“Good afternoon!” Mr. Mittra boomed, cutting off his argument with the two other men instantly. The two other man turned to look out the window, watching the traffic. As always, Stuart felt uncomfortable, as if he were intruding on private space.
“How are you?”
Mr. Mittra nodded, ringing up plastic bottles. “I am fine, thank you. Thirsty today, yes?”
Stuart nodded. “Seems so.”
He’d had a hundred variations on this conversation: polite greeting, innocuous, modestly humorous observation, agreement, and then the transaction would be completed in silence. The other Indian men never paid him any attention, and acted as if their conversation had simply moved on to a discussion of the traffic outside the store. He’d often wondered what would happen if he said something more, or something inflammatory.
Instead, he stood politely while Mr. Mittra bagged his items and rang everything up. He gathered the bags when they were filled and turned away.
“Keep the change, I don’t need it.”
Stuart expected the storeowner to say something else, to argue or protest or thank him, but instead there was silence behind him for a moment, and then the click of the cash register closing, and then The Argument picked up right where it had left off, apparently in mid-syllable. He stepped out into the chill air and paused to look around; it was a beautiful day, really. Bright and clear, crisp. Too cold, but not unbearably so. Still feeling gray and wobbly, Stuart breathed deeply and smiled a little, calm and content. The traffic, light in the middle of the day, moved by relentlessly, and the old Duffers standing around the trash can on the corner stared at him, continuing their conversations but looking at him.
He pictured himself as one of them: a secretive millionaire, standing around drinking bad coffee and discussing neighborhood gossip and county politics and hawking up phlegm to spit into the gutters. It wasn’t a completely unpleasant image, he thought; there was a grandeur to the sheer despotic laziness of the idea. Wasting so much time, so grandly, somehow appealed to him, just taking a few decades of useful life and pouring it down the sewer drain they were standing so close to. It was exciting, somehow.
Still, he started walking, thinking how doubtful it was that the Duffers would ever admit him into their August company. First of all, he wasn’t old enough. Secondly, he doubted he could drink that much coffee without hurting himself. Finally, he had a much better plan for his future, one which involved his purchases and a lot of free time.
As he walked the two blocks back to his apartment building, people on porches watched him, and he kept his eyes resolutely on the sidewalk ahead of him. He hated how they sat there, immobile overweight behemoths, just watching. They never did anything. They sat in sagging chairs wrapped in warm clothes and just watched the world move by them, studying everyone. Stuart hated the feeling of being watched, their insectoid minds clicking and whirring and thinking alien things about him. Wondering, predicting what was in the brown paper bags. Talking about him later, the strange man from 293, one of those apartments, and now he was always around, he never worked, he looks terrible.
The Duffers, at least, he thought, kept to themselves.
At his building, Stuart paused to juggle his bags and check for mail. A few bills, a few pieces of junk-mail. He stuffed them into the bag with his bottles of soda and walked up to his apartment.
IV. Stuart’s Apartment
By the third bourbon in soda, Stuart had put the chair back in the kitchen and tossed the rope into a corner. He walked back and forth through his apartment slowly, sipping his drinks and letting his eyes roam over the familiar space. He hadn’t expected to see it again, at least not alive, and he wondered at everything, eyes wide, amazed. He found himself below the rafter, staring up at it, looking for signs of himself, actually there, hanging, the rest of it just a weird fevered dream as his brain strangled. He wondered if the past week, the lottery, the party, had just been a dream, a horrible codicil to his life, hinting to him that he’d made a bad decision, taunting him with the possibility of improvements. He wondered if he’d ever actually considered killing himself, and would stare at the note he’d written, typed so carefully, not an error in it. He’d pick up an end of rope and feel it in his hands.
He ended up in one of the overstuffed chairs, a fourth cocktail sweating on a coaster on the endtable which held the phone and the lamp and the answering machine, which had somehow acquired sixteen more messages, mysteriously, ominously. He picked up the phone and dialed quickly, working his mouth carefully. He listened for a moment.
“Deb? Hey, it’s Stuart. I was just thinking . . . You know what? I forgot you’re at work. I guess I’ll call you there. If for some reason you don’t hear from me at work and you get this, just give me a call.”
He disconnected and sat for a moment, the phone held loosely in one hand. Then he seemed to convulse slightly, gently, and dialed another number. Listened for a moment.
“Hey, it’s Stuart. I was thinking, you want to have a drink later? I’ll buy you dinner.”
V. Stuart’s Table
“You look better.”
Stuart smiled, sitting down. “I feel terrible. Thanks for coming.”
Debbie sipped from her glass of wine. “How could I resist? You’re one mysterious millionaire, you know.”
“People,” he said, snapping out his napkin, “have been calling me all day long. I’ve got thirty-four messages on my answering machine. No one’s turned up outside the place, though, which is weird.”
Debbie frowned. “That is kind of strange. Any theories?”
“It’s an unlisted number. Wherever they’re getting it from, maybe they’re having trouble cross-referencing the address. Or maybe they’re assuming I’m not stupid enough to stay put. I’ve read that I’m supposed to have a lawyer and a financial consultant within twenty-four hours, and that I’m supposed to be far away from my actual home.”
She grinned. “To protect you from predators?”
He winked. “I guess.”
He ordered a Scotch and soda from the waiter and then lumped in his chair. Debbie rested her head on her laced fingers and studied him. “What, did you just drink all day?”
She blinked. “Really?”
“Sure. I’m on vacation. Listen, I--thank you,” he said to the waiter, who set his drink in front of him.
“May I read you today’s specials?” the Waiter asked professionally.
“Give us a moment,” Stuart said.
“Very mysterious. Going to give me another chess set?”
He smiled. “Bad choice, that, I see that now. I have a couple of cousins who’d appreciate that a little more. No, I had a better idea.” He paused, looking down into his drink. “Deb, I suppose you know you’ve been a good friend to me these past few years, working together.”
She looked down, flushing. “Well,”
“No, it’s true. And for a while now, my only friend.” He cleared his throat. “I’m not looking to get all emotional here, and get that look of terror off your face, I’m not about to pledge my eternal love or anything.”
She smiled, shaking her head shyly.
“No--listen, I’m just acknowledging your friendship, that’s all.” He picked up his glass and held it up. “A toast, to you. Thanks for being my friend.” Without waiting for her to lift her glass, he drained his drink in a few prodigious gulps and stood up. “I’ve got to go. I’m going to leave this,” he said, producing a crisp white envelope from his jacket, “and get going--sorry.” He placed the envelope on the table and turned to go. Debbie stared, first at the envelope and then at Stuart’s retreating back, for a few seconds.
“Hey!” she finally cried, half-standing. “Wait!”
Stuart didn’t turn around. He kept going. After a moment,
she sat back in her chair and lifted her glass, draining it, and then searching the room for her waiter. After an exchange of nods, she looked down at the envelope, picked it up, and slit it open with an efficient finger. She brought the envelope up to her lips and puffed breath into it, squinting to see its contents.
Here eyes widened. “Oh, crap, Stuart--no!”
VI. Stuart’s Door
Debbie paused at the top of the stairs in Stuart’s building, panting, and sagged for a moment, catching her breath. Swallowing thickly, she walked over to Stuart’s door, the white envelope in one hand, and pounded on it.
“Stuart! Open up! It’s Debbie!”
She waited in the musty hallway, listening. She thought faint noises were audible from within the apartment, but couldn’t be sure, and cocked her head carefully, breathing shallowly.
She pounded the door again, pressed her ear against it. But she couldn’t hear anything, or be sure she had, indeed, heard anything before. It was just silence, and the food smell of the hallway, and her own pounding heart. She stood for a moment with her palm against the door, waiting, and then she knelt down and slid the envelope under the door, where it was found, some days later.
Looking back, she turned and walked to the stairs. Then she looked down, picking her steps carefully in the gloom, and descended.
Jeff Somers is perhaps the most prolific fiction writer in all of zinedom. His zine The Inner Swine has been published quarterly for over a decade, and some of the best selections are collected in the book The Freaks Are Winning (Inner Swine 2002). His novel Lifers, about a group of disgruntled white collar workers who try their hands at a life of crime, was published by Creative Arts in 2001. He also has selections in the new books Urban Bizarre (Prime Books, 2004), and Bare Bones #5 (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004). He's currently serializing his latest work, a new novel in the tradition of dystopian science fiction, The Electric Church, at Another Chapter. Buy him a drink whenever you're in Hoboken, New Jersey or New York City, but approach him slowly with your hands up.