The next day was consumed by the election: office conversations, emails exhorting everyone to get out and vote, and on the evening bus home a young black man getting on downtown held up his cell phone to show a photo of Obama. “Yes we can!” he hollered. He chose a seat near a friend a few rows behind Fred and Ike and began explaining that he was going to frame his voter’s ticket if Obama won and keep it forever. Riders of every age and color smiled at each other, the mood was one of suspense, giddiness, awe, as if the nation was throwing itself a party. Maybe it was.
Fred and Ike went two extra stops to get off the bus close to the polling place, which was in the community rooms of a neighborhood church. There were virtually no lines, so they had plenty of time, but decided to split a pizza just the same. The mood of the evening was infectious, even lifting Fred on its surging tide. Ike popped on the TV, Fred retrieved two brimming jars of elixir, and they settled in to follow the returns. Fred gave a running commentary of the ramifications of every percentage and statistic.
Still rather early, Obama had won 207 electoral votes, so Ike decided to head upstairs to work for a bit on a problem Amanda had found with his entrance detail. He was still sure he could make it work, and the deadline for the revision drawings was Friday. At least, something was going right with the world; the economy sure as hell sucked. Krasnoski had said in response to a question about whether it was the economy that had forced the decision to close the Newark office that “it was a financial decision.” How long till Pittsburgh closed? Closing Newark felt like the 6.5 quake that precedes the one that sends L.A. into the drink. Not a lunch went by without it coming up. At least they were seeing more of Amanda.
Fred lifted one wide-spread hand as Ike passed toward the stairs. “Yes we did!”
Ike landed a walloping five on it in return. Well, it did look like it was sewn up, but you never know. It’s the goddamn microscopic hanging chads that screw you up if someone’s got a mind to do the screwing.
Fred turned to the portrait of an old black man in a dignified suit who lorded it over the staircase. “You lived to see it” he said. The man kept his own counsel on the matter.
But Barack Obama won the popular election, Ike’s dismal pessimism notwithstanding.
Fred stayed up until the election was declared, perhaps to assure himself that Constantia’s idol would not get one step closer to the White House, or maybe in a vengeful spirit that gloated at the fall of his cruel girlfriend’s heroine, but in spite of getting less than his customary amount of sleep and the still looming mushroom cloud of Monday night’s collision with atomic-Con, he was in a buoyant mood on Wednesday. Ike chose to see it as a blessing that he would be spared her shrill mourning for Palin, though he did not share this sentiment with Fred.
Ike woke to daylight brightening his window. Friday at last. As he lay there, he debated dispassionately, for what seemed like the hundredth time, whether to get up or not. There was a deadline: his team needed him to complete his work, though it was a team unlike any he’d played or worked with before; each man and woman sat within their isolated grievances, nursing their private resentments, stealing stray moments of amusement, hacked with the system, stuck. There had been that brief elation last week when Gordon had brought him into the façade re-design with Amanda, and it had been giddily satisfying, while it lasted. Now they had to grind out this whole redesigned set and those fancy curved walls were proving harder to render and coordinate than anticipated, server crashes and Leadership Initiatives notwithstanding. Designing was beginning to feel like an opiate he couldn’t afford to get strung out on.
But did it have to be that way?
Fred had said, “Do whatever you want.” And why not? There was an outside shot that his dad would take him on, not out of any sense of weakness or desperation, simply because he knew how much Ike loved the work. Sure, he’d be invaluable to his dad by adding design capabilities to the little company, but it was the physical work of taking tools in hand to build a house where there had been only an ugly bare patch of earth that excited him. Really. There was always that thin wire of electricity running through his days on the construction crew. Could it hurt him in the long run, in his desire to be an architect? He really didn’t know. All he knew from his professors was the academic path, the glamorous superhighway of the starchitects like Frank Gehry, or the slow, steady advancement to partner in a prestigious firm. He was no professor nor was he a genius, and he was beginning to see that his frustration tolerance was too low to allow him the laborious climb to recognition and reward. There had to be other ways to do it.
The question remained: Did he stay with this mess until he figured things out or take a leap and see where he landed?
No idea. Asking the question wasn’t enough to conjure an answer. One thing he did know: he felt perfectly capable of getting up and going in this morning. What happened after that was something else again.
Hair still damp from the shower, Ike scarcely expected what he saw when he came downstairs fifteen minutes later to grab some breakfast. There was Fred, slouched in his favorite armchair, still in his robe and brown bunny slippers, unshaven, staring vacantly into space. This was worrisome in the extreme.
“Fred?” Ike asked, plopping nearby on the couch. “You feeling alright?”
Fred didn’t blink or move or acknowledge Ike’s presence except that he answered in a dull, flat voice. “I don’t know.”
Ike’s pulse quickened. Too much elixir?
“Maybe you need to take the day off.”
Fred turned in Ike’s direction, very slowly focusing. Ike waited, as Fred continued merely to look.
“You’re freaking me out,” Ike said,propelling himself up with an energetic hop as if to shake off the torpor that was radiating from Fred. “I’m going to put on some coffee.”
“I’m not going in,” Fred said, still staring at the place where Ike had been. “There is nothing there.”
A few minute later, Fred trudged into the kitchen, where the sounds of gurgling coffee and escaping steam energized the room. The sun was shining in the back window. It was the oddity of November’s release from Daylight Savings Time that made the bright morning seem later than it was. Ike was pouring milk over a bowl of corn flakes.
Fred picked up the phone and dialed Numb4. “Yes. Good morning. This is Fred Fuchs. I am not able to go in to work this morning. No, alienated. Yes, you have heard me correctly. I am suffering from alienation. I don’t know. I’ll call Monday if I cannot. I will attempt a philosophical purge. Thank you.”
Then he hung up.
“Alienated?” Ike said around a mouthful of corn flakes.
“That’s about the size of it.” Fred moved with more deliberation, as he chose a short glass jar for his coffee. He dumped several loads of sugar into it and then the coffee, which he sloshed about to stir it. He sat opposite Ike, staring into the dark brown depths.
“I consider you a valued friend,” he said, looking up. It was and was not, the familiar face of Frederick Fuchs. The features and its expressions were the same, but something was missing—the acuteness of scorn perhaps.
“Same here, buddy,” Ike said. “Sorry if my ‘crisis’ has bummed you out.”
“Not so much. I feel OK about going in, so I’m going in. I’ll take it as it comes.”
“What will you do with yourself today?”
“Walk. Re-read Vaneigem,” he smiled up at Ike, who was rinsing his bowl in the sink. “See where I am after that.”
“You’re awake,” Ike said, glancing at his watch. “You can do whatever you like.”
The smile disappeared from Fred’s face, replaced by a frown of concentration.
“Gotta take off,” Ike said, with not another moment to spare on worry. “Give me a call if you need anything.”
He grabbed his satchel and ran out the door, half way to locking it out of sheer habit. Man, Fred was an enigma. He just hoped nothing was so seriously wrong that a day off and a jar of elixir couldn’t cure.
Want to go back and re-read? Chapters 1-17 are here.