“Mr. Talbot wants to talk to you.”
“What for? I haven’t done anything.”
“He’s waiting for you right now.”
A half-empty pint of vodka sat on Mr. Talbot’s desk. For the life of an insane half-second, Ray thought Mr. Talbot had invited him in for a drink. Then he remembered Mr. Talbot’s wife had drank herself to death, and Mr. Talbot hated demon liquor and its willing tool, the drinker.
“Wilson the night janitor found this in your desk,” Mr. Talbot said.
“Never mind what he was doing in your desk. What was that doing in your desk is the question.”
Ray wanted to explain that a quick nip after breakfast and before lunch made the mind-numbing labor of sticking letters in their appropriate boxes go by a little smoother. Instead, he looked off to the side and said nothing.
“Vodka, they call that the no-tell drink, don’t they?” Talbot said. “No tell-tale scent to give you away? Eh, Mr. Finch?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Go clean out your desk. I’ll have no alkies working for me. Go on, get out.”
Ray walked out of the building and into the sunlight. He carried his office residue in a cardboard box with the company name printed on the side, feeling vaguely relieved. He looked inside the box at the stolen pens, the bored drawings, the idle notes and the broken plastic lottery genie. He forced the box into a sidewalk trash bin and realized she would never understand, not in one hundred thousand years.
“I’ll miss you,” Ray said. “Especially when I lie in bed at night. Unless I’ve drank too much. I won’t then. But when I’m sober and lying in bed at night I’ll think of you. I swear it.”
“You’re taking it awfully well,” she said.
“I’m good at that. By God you’re right. I’m good at taking it.”
She looked out the window. “I think you’re taking it harder inside. You just have a hard time showing your emotions. I’ve told you that.”
He stopped packing to look at her. “You really think so? I always thought I was deeper than I let on. Still waters run deep, they say.” He went back to packing and she frowned slightly at his back.
“You don’t have to leave,” she said. “I’m certainly not kicking you out, even if you are a lush without a job. Tell you the truth, I don’t care one way or another.”
“And that’s why I’m leaving. You understand.”
“Of course, I understand. Actually, I’m glad you’re leaving. It makes room for Roger to move in.”
Ray stopped packing. “Roger’s moving in?”
“Of course, he is,” she said, happy now.
“That’s who I was talking to on the phone. I told you.”
“You didn’t.” He was packing again but very slowly, like every shirt weighed a thousand cold pounds.
“I’m certain I did,” she said, smiling at the window. “Look what a lovely day it is. A fine day for moving out. Or in.”
Ray shut the suitcase. He wasn’t finished packing, but he shut and latched the suitcase. It’s okay to leave some things behind, he thought. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do, even in the best of circumstances.
He lifted the suitcase and walked to the door. “I guess I’m going now.”
“Where you going to?” she said, yawning.
“My mom has been begging me to visit so I thought I’d go up there and say hello.”
“Oh. Well, toot-a-loo!”
Ray wanted to say something, something important and true, it seemed that something should be said. Instead, he opened the door and closed it quietly behind him.
Roger was standing in the hall. Like a vulture, Ray wanted to think, but it wasn’t true. Roger stood halfway down the hall, looking at the floor with silent shame.
Ray started down the hall, his joints stiff, his face numb. He wanted to smile, he wanted to slap Roger heartily on the back and boom: “Well, I wish you better luck than me, old man!” But he didn’t because he had never been that way, he had never boomed and he had certainly never slapped anyone on the back with anything approaching heartiness. Instead, he averted his eyes and moved to one side of the narrow hall so he would not brush up against his diluted Judas.
“Sorry,” Roger whispered as Ray hunched by.
Ray mumbled something. Not words. Just a mumbling sound that could have expressed forgiveness, hate or even apathy as far as Ray knew. He walked all the way to the end of the hall and down the stairs and past the old woman at the reception desk who eyed his suitcase coldly.
“Are you going to settle up?” she demanded.
“Of course,” Ray mumbled, walking faster, startled by the cowbell on the door as he stumbled into the cold sunshine.
It’s a new day, Ray thought, putting the suitcase in the back seat and climbing behind the wheel, and all the fine connotations that go along with that. New beginnings, a fresh horizon to race toward and Roger was probably in there now, perhaps looking through the things he’d left behind, perhaps in her arms, perhaps kissing, perhaps doing something else.
Ray drove away wondering how he felt about all that.
Ray parked the car in front of the grey-paneled mobile home of his youth. He took out the suitcase and the large black mongrel crouched beneath the porch growled at him.
“It’s me, boy,” Ray said, moving slowly toward him, offering his hand palm down. “Don’t you remember me? Has it been that long?”
The dog lunged from beneath the porch and bit Ray’s hand. Ray jumped back and yelped and the dog retreated beneath the porch to growl low and deep, teeth bared.
“Goddamn dog,” Ray said, climbing the porch steps, wiping his bleeding hand on his jacket. He peered through the screen door at the gloom inside. In the deepest corner, in a low arm-chair, sat an old grey woman.
“It’s me, Ma!” Ray said, putting his hand on the door handle. “I’ve come home.”
Ray froze solid. He stood at the door without a single thought except to hide the suitcase behind his leg.
“Just to say hello, I guess,” he finally said. “To let you know I’m still alive.”
“No one thought you were dead, son.”
“Oh.” Ray shifted his feet. “Sorry I didn’t write. I’ve been in Denver looking . . . well, I don’t really know what I’ve been looking for. It all seems like something I saw on TV, something—”
“There’s nothing to drink here,” his mother said. “I threw it all out when your father passed away.”
“That’s not why I . . . Dad passed away?”
“Three months ago. Thought you knew.”
“I didn’t.” Ray shifted his feet again and waited for the emotional wave of his father’s death to hit him. After a moment, he gave up. “Well, I guess I just wanted to stop by and say hello.”
“Oh. Well, hello.”
“Hello. The dog bit me.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“No, of course not.”
Ray looked at his feet feeling all the world like an extra with a crappy part in a really crappy movie. He let go of the door handle.
“Do you take credit cards?”
“Yeah,” the barman said, averting his eyes to show his disapproval. He took Ray’s Amex and ran it through the little black box. Ray did not look at the tiny yet powerful machine, afraid to jinx it.
“It’s no good,” the bartender said, tossing the card back.
“Sorry,” Ray said, passing over a Visa. “You don’t have to open it for much. Just a couple drinks.”
The bartender frowned deeper and swiped the card.
“What town is this?” Ray asked.
“It isn’t a town. It’s a bar on a highway. This card is no good either.”
“Try it for less,” Ray said, trying not to sound desperate. “See, I’m here to celebrate.”
The barman made a face then went back to the machine.
“It cleared for twenty,” the barman said. “What do you want?”
“You want to be careful with plastic,” the barman said. “Once you screw up your credit, you’re fucked forever.”
“What’s good credit,” Ray asked, “compared to an ice cold vodka tonic? Did you know vodka is the no-tell liquor?”
“No shit. What’s the occasion?”
“You said you were celebrating.”
“That’s right. It’s my re-birthday.”
The bartender turned back to the television. A western was on and Ray knew it was almost over because the bad guys were losing the saloon brawl badly.
“Ever notice,” Ray said, “how the bad guys always wait for the punch?”
The bartender flicked his cigarette at the floor.
“The bad guys,” Ray went on, “will throw a wild punch then leave their jaw out there for a second, just long enough to get hit.”
“Shitty stunt work is what that is.”
“You don’t think it’s because they want to get hit? Because they know they’ve been bad?”
“It’s a fucking movie, jerk-off! They’re not really fighting!”
“Oh, right.” The good guys were riding into the sunset now, their work done.
“The stunt guys probably go out drinking afterwards,” the bartender added. “Laugh it up over a couple cold ones!”
“Oh, right.” Ray torpedoed the vodka and tonic in one swallow. “Could I have another?”
The bartender lifted the bottle from the well and Ray grabbed it.
“Fuck you, jerk-off!” Ray said then tipped up the bottle and let the liquor spill down his throat. The bartender hit him in the side of the head, knocking him to the floor. The bottle rolled away and the barman bounded over the bar and scooped it up.
“That’s coming off your card!” he yelled.
“All right!” Ray said. “Let’s have a few cold ones!”
“You’re 86ed, asshole!”
Ray got up and walked outside. He got behind the wheel and rubbed the side of his head.
“That hurts,” he said, smiling. “I feel it. It really fucking hurts.”
“Hey,” the bartender yelled from the doorway. “Don’t forget your fucking card.”
“Send it back to the prop department,” Ray said, starting the engine. “I’ll get a new one.”
He pulled onto the road and drove off into the sunset.