“How could even spontaneous laughter last in a space-time that is measured and measurable, let alone real joy?”—Raoul Vaneigem
There was a gentle rap on the glass of the conference room door, and Fred watched as Rolland heaved himself from his chair to see what Amanda Franklin wanted. They whispered together for a moment and Amanda stepped back.
“Fred,” Rolland said, laying a hand upon the folder Fred was sorting. “Ms. Franklin would like a word.”
Fred raised an eyebrow and looked up at Amanda, who was gazing neutrally at a model of a football stadium that stood against the far wall of the lobby. The partners had been meeting for two-days down in the big meeting room on the 9th floor, the office manager so overrun she wasn’t even complaining anymore as she directed the caterers who bustled in and out all day. Even “Wizard” Sykowitz was supposedly up from Philly, not that anyone had seen him. Fred nodded and walked out to meet her.
“Ms. Franklin?” he said with his customary half-bow.
Amanda pushed the door shut. “Good morning, Fred. I wonder if you could clear your schedule to have lunch with me today? I’m headed back to Newark tomorrow and I’d like to discuss a proposal with you before I go.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “I am free this afternoon. I shall await my appointment with anticipation.”
“Excellent! At noon, then?”
He bowed from the shoulders again, and returned to his work, unleashing the smile that he had withheld from her. Perhaps she was as good as her word and had spoken to Krasnoski about hiring him on…The morning flew cheerfully by, and good as her word, she was bundled up and ready to go at the stroke of noon. At the sight of his plaid CPO coat, she clucked ruefully, but nonetheless hooked her hand in his arm and steered him toward the elevators.
A teenage boy in retro, half-rim clubmaster glasses emerged from the elevator when it arrived, nervously smoothing an uncooperative cowlick.
“Oh, hello again, David,” Amanda cooed as she propelled Fred inside. “A brief stop at Larrimor’s is in order, I believe, hmm, comrade?”
Fred’s protests were drowned in the closing of the elevator doors.
Ike was at his desk, grinding through another sheet of red lines, wondering what he was doing here at all, though the answer was that he still had not come up with a better answer. He couldn’t leave because there was nowhere to go. Fred said he was free, but even if that was true, what did he really want? He no longer knew.
Beyond the windows, it was dark already; the ranks of buildings marching up the avenues began to take on an inner glow. It should have been beautiful, the way the New York skyline looked after dark, as if a magic wand had turned glass and steel into a galaxy of blue, white and golden stars you could reach out and take in your hand, or dive into, an inverted night sky that went on and on. But not tonight. Ike watched the checkerboards slowly light up square by square, each yellow box containing a man at a desk, a man watching a clock, time that wasn’t moving, might never move. The predictability of the pattern, light and dark, light and dark, the grids, the endless grids; it was like something out of The Matrix. Who had dreamed these boxes up and why were all these people stuck inside? His beloved world, the built, created world, opened its darkness to him, threw open its chest to reveal rot and corruption seething like a vivisected beehives. In his cell, he was a little clicking drone, bred to some social machine’s specifications, grinding out tiny spikes of heat or cash or complicity, or whatever was needed to run this hell above the ground. Jesus, Fred was right, he wasn’t even a man; his soul, his desires, meant nothing. A puppet clicking away his hours for Krasnoski’s bank account and from there to someone else’s pockets, another and another and another, so that money and more money, and what it bought, and what you should have or look like or be, were all that mattered, all that existed, infesting every corner of the world.
Ike’s stomach churned, and even that sensation felt alien rather than a welcome sign of life; what was inside his body was no different than the empty darkness he watched beyond the window. Where was he? Who was he? Was he alive at all? These days, he’d do about anything it seemed to grab at that sensation of living. He jumped out of his chair and ran, his forehead and back jumping with cold sweat.
Passing Alice at her desk, he said he was going down to 9 to get some samples. He took the stairs. Probably no one down there, and he was right. Locking the door behind him, he wound his way into a dark corner of carpet samples and tile chip boards and sat on the floor, his head buried between his knees. He remained there in mute suspension, not asleep but not really thinking either, until a glance at his watch told him he was running late.
Alice noticed his empty hands, as he headed back to his desk for his coat and bag. “Didn’t find what you needed?”
“No, I didn’t.” There were no answers, only a hurtling black tunnel into which he was falling, spinning downward with no stop and no escape.
“How come your friend had lunch with Amanda?”
“My—what?” He stopped and looked at Alice, trying to refocus on the details of her frilled collar, her hair clip, the insistent red lipstick, the solid world he was supposed to believe in. Her pen cap was scrunched with teeth marks.
“Fred and Amanda, arm-in-arm. To lunch. They were gone two hours.”
“Jesus,” Ike whispered, walking away in a new trance. What the fuck is going on?
Fred was still blinking away his own visions when Ike trotted breathlessly to the bus stop, sheltering under a wide, black umbrella. He was wet anyway.
“Can’t believe I made it,” he gasped. “Amanda took you to lunch!”
Fred didn’t need to ask how he knew; everyone knew everything within 20 minutes at FKRS.
“Yes,” Fred whispered. “To the Capital Grill.”
Ike shook his head to clear it. “Whoa.”
A bus lumbered up the slight incline of Fourth Avenue at the far end of the double block, though Ike could not make out if it was the 56E. Fred stared up at the rain sheeting in swirling waves against the PNC building.
“What did you get?” Ike asked.
Fred turned finally, staring down at Ike. “What did I get? She tried to bribe me with clothing, food, liquor and money to tell her what we’re doing in that conference room. Connubial bliss! The woman made a pass at me.”
“Clothing? I take it you didn’t.”
“Do I look like a brainless mannequin?”
“Just saying…Hey! What do you mean, what you’re doing in the conference room?”
“At last you begin to register the nature of this lunch appointment.”
The bus whooshed to the curb and flung open its doors. It was not the 56E.
Ike stood out of the way of a woman with a double-wide stroller. “Wait. Amanda Franklin hit on you?”
“Thank you, Ike. It’s been a stressful day.”
“Wow. She must be desperate…uh, no offense.”
“None taken.” Fred shifted his position vis-à-vis a persistent drip from Ike’s umbrella.
It was wet and cold. Ike tried to shrink further down into his scarf and raised collar. “So something is going on?”
“I’ve told you before what it is within my bounds to say, and that is, that it is not good.”
“Did you tell her that?”
Finally, in the distance, an old wobbly bus passed a parked UPS truck.
“No, I did not,” Fred said, lining up at the curb as the 56E began to slow down in front of them. “I did not appreciate the estimate of myself that her behavior insinuated. She will have to find other methods or stupider people.”
“Like maybe Phil…”
“Or Colin Radnor.”
The bus was comparatively empty, and they easily found a pair of seats.
“I’d overheard them argue in the hall some time ago, so I asked her—by way of returning the insult—if she had, in fact, slept with Colin Radnor. I admit, it was not in the least gentlemanly on my part, but I felt she had foregone the right to be treated like a lady. She eyed me for a moment, possibly believing I was evaluating the career potential of her offer and said: “Well, yes I did. We had our little fling—as if he thinks that means anything. In the right mood, I’ll bang anything.”
Ike laughed in spite of himself. “Sorry, Fred. That’s just shit.”
This time Fred didn’t say thank you, though he felt it. He was beginning to feel better.
“On the side, might I ask if you have ever met this Sykowitz character? I begin to doubt his existence.”
“The Wizard?” Ike thought for a bit. “Well, no, now that you mention it, I don’t think I have. There are a bunch of ridiculous stories, but I’ve—“
“Now, take into consideration that it was Wills who told me…”
Fred closed his eyes, then opened them again. The bus had finally cleared a traffic tie-up at the Hot Metal Bridge and was now turning into the underpass at Second Avenue.
“OK,” Ike laughed. It was as if he were reciting aphorisms. “The Wizard has been designing for 40 years and he’s only 35. He was made partner at age 8½, shortly after finishing the fourth grade…”
He didn’t get a lot further because he actually had Fred in a fit of laughter that rebounded onto Ike like an asthma attack, full of fitful breathing and wheezing, and a miraculous sense of floating, lifting.
“Oh, my!” said Fred, attempting to gain control of his runaway hilarity. “FKRS, indeed. What do you say to stopping at the store on the way home? I want a big steak dinner, filet mignon and a nice bottle of red wine. A salad maybe and asparagus, steamed, with béarnaise sauce. I can do without the cut crystal goblets and golden chasers. ”
Ike lifted his eyebrows. “What did you have for lunch?”
“Filet mignon and asparagus with béarnaise sauce. I must not allow evil to ruin my pleasures. Back in the proverbial gastronomic saddle!”
“Yeah, but me, Fred, I think I want a big, fat pork chop in mushroom gravy—with French fries.”
“Do you know how to make that?”
Ike paused. Well, that was a good point; why should Fred have to make it? “Uh, no…but how hard can it be?”
“Nothing is beyond your abilities, if you want it, I’m sure.”
Ike laughed. At least Fred had confidence. After the weird mind-warp he’d had this afternoon, he wasn’t so sure about even his sanity. But Fred’s problem and laughter and the prospect of a solid meal made him feel, at least in a momentary way, as if he were under his own power again. Tomorrow he’d just have to try to do it again.
Have you missed the beginning? You can find chapters 1-12 here.