Safe Sex

Chapter 1

It was 1991, Year 11 of the Age of AIDS, Magic Johnson had tested positive the previous November, the World Wide Web was birthed at Christmas, and History had ended a few years before that.  I was twenty, and she was thirty-two.  I was living on the edge of Midtown, and the apartment overlooked the big park and I slept on a pallet in the sun room.  I got up at dawn and had coffee watching the horse patrol take their morning constitutional, the white helmets bobbing side by side in twin lines through the morning fog.  The fog lifted as the morning came on, the sun burned it off the land and the park was green with spring and even the air seemed clean and nothing would ever die.

Then I wrote for a couple of hours, and I took a shower and went in to work on the magazine.  The magazine paid for the writing that I did, it had bought the little computer that I worked on, and it paid the rent and the groceries.  But mainly it bought the time to write.

I had wound up in Atlanta after I quit school in DC, after the accident.  I had lived off my parents for a while, and I had tried to write at home, in a little studio I had set up like my father’s, and I had liked it, it had been a dream.  But I decided I needed to be someplace real, which meant a job doing something for my own money and a place of my own.  I was scared of New York, and DC was failure to me, but I knew some people in Atlanta, that is, I knew Corey Holland from school.

Corey Holland was a Young Republican headed for Harvard law school with whom I’d got drunk one night when I was supposed to be reading about the origins of the Vietnam War.  He had knocked on my door with a bottle of bourbon and two glasses, looking for my roommate Kelsey to drink with, but Kelsey was out and I had not wanted to read the book anyway.

“Fall’s a crock of shit,” said Corey Holland, shaking his head at the book.  “He’s nothing but an apologist for communism.”  He came back to this from time to time as we sat drinking in my room, it seemed important to him that I agree to his proposition about Fall, and it did not matter to me, so I said I supposed he was right, and Corey Holland paused and looked at me and said, “You’re an intelligent boy.”

What made me a boy and him a man I don’t know, unless it was the Republicanism, or maybe, I remember thinking at the time, it was my name, Willie, like Willie Yeats and Willie Morris, my father always told me, but like some southern punk, I thought, Willie Boy, Willie Stark, Willie hanging around the pool hall with the big boys.  But, anyway, Corey Holland liked me and he was from Atlanta, so when I thought of running away there, I called him at school.  He listened to me talk it all out, and I listened to the hollow, echoing sounds of the dorm behind him on the hall phone and I felt lost a little, like I should have been in school and couldn’t be there, like a displaced person, and I felt the pressure of time, to hurry up and get somewhere and do something, before my time was all used up.

“Sure,” Corey Holland had said, and I could see him nodding, see his confident, young Republican face as he said the words, “I can put you in touch with the right people.”

The right people had been a small publisher on the north side and a landlord in Midtown.  I stayed at a motel outside of town on the interstate, and when I was registering I stopped, with the ballpoint in my hand, and I changed my name, from Willie to Wiley, like Wiley Post, the aviator who flew with Will Rogers into oblivion in 1935.  From childhood, I remembered pieces of a TV documentary on Rogers, with clips of Post looking quite dashing with a black patch over one eye, a pilot at a time when flight was a romance, and, standing there at the motel desk, I decided I was Willie no longer, I would be Wiley now, and so I signed my name, Wiley Jones.

And I interviewed for a job at the publisher’s.  I had a résumé for William Jones that listed the journalism awards I had got as a freshman and a letter of introduction from Corey Holland’s father, and I interviewed with the general manager, a woman named Patricia Patterson who wore her grey hair pulled back tightly into a bun and dressed in a grey pants suit with a white silk blouse.

She was having trouble with her computer when I got there, and a young man with a beard and longish hair parted down the middle bent over her shoulder and pecked at her keyboard and watched her screen and stroked his beard.  He looked up at me and smiled as I came in.  Patricia Patterson frowned at him and said, “Is it a virus?”

He looked down at her, and he said, “You’ve got a circular reference in your worksheet, Patricia.  It doesn’t like it when you think in circles.”

She patted the desk beside her anxiously.  “Can you fix it?”

He smiled again, “Sure.  Let me get a copy of it, and I’ll figure it out in my office.”

He got what he needed on to a floppy disk and left us, and Patricia Patterson began to talk to me.  She smoked cigarettes the whole time, constantly, the way my mother smokes, in little white plastic filtered holders that were part of some plan to quit smoking by weaning herself off the nicotine.  Her red lipstick came off her lips onto the end of her cigarette holder.

She talked on and on about the company and the benefits and the job in Editorial, and I almost quit listening to her, gazing just to the left of her and out her window at the little airport where the office was located, at a row of small private planes lined up alongside the runway, and I thought of flying, I thought of Wiley Post and the old song, Some glad morning when this world is over, I’ll fly away.  I felt my eyelids heavy after lunch in the warm afternoon, and I snapped back just as her red lips parted and closed on the white cigarette holder and she drew smoke and blew it out across the desk in a thin stream, and she said, “Do you think Brackett Data sounds like your kind of place?”  She smiled a meaningless smile, appropriately timed and insincere, I thought that she did not smile much or easily.

“Yes, ma’am,” I smiled back at her.

She set aside the Holland letter and picked up the résumé.  She said, “You certainly sound like someone Brackett Data could use.”

“Thank you.”

Still looking at the résumé, she said, “I didn’t get into this sort of work until I was at least a junior.”

“I was in an accelerated program.”

“‘For the gifted,’ it says here.”  She lifted the résumé just off the surface of her desk.

I said, “Yes, ma’am.”  The gifted part was always difficult for me, I don’t know why.  I enjoyed being the smartest person in the room, but the feeling that I got whenever I talked about it with someone seemed to be that I shouldn’t take such pleasure in it, I should want to be more average, and I didn’t, I never wanted to be one of the boys.

She set the résumé aside and said, “The position is associate editor.  I didn’t become an associate editor until I’d worked here over five years.”

I thought, But you weren’t gifted, were you?   I said, “It must be a position of some responsibility.”

“It is,” she said.  “Do you feel ready for it?”

I said immediately, “I have always risen to the task before me.”  I felt like we were playing chess and I was black, on the defence, and I wondered if it was just an interview style or if she was always playing with the people there.

She said, “Yes,” and smiled her difficult smile and said, “Then I don’t see how we can say no to someone with your obvious qualifications.”

And I thought the gifted part had done it for me again, but I was wrong, I would find out later.

Then Patricia Patterson walked me through the office and showed me where everything was, introduced me to the other people who worked there.  “This is Wiley Jones,” she would say to them, and it felt strange to be called by the new name, it felt subversive.  “He’s our new junior editor.”  The women would smile as I sized them up, there was one good-looking blonde there, young, with moist soft pink dream lips that made me feel like kissing and sex, and the men in bright ties and white shirtsleeves would smile too and shake my hand strongly, and towards the back of the building, at the end of a long unlit hall and through a door marked Circulation and into a dim room lined with boxes and stacks of magazines and books, was a young black man with his hair in dreadlocks in a T-shirt that said Uhuru! who looked at me uncertainly yet not without a certain savvy feel to him, and I knew that he alone in all the company was sizing me up, and he said, “Hey, bro.”  I thought I was OK with him.  At last she took me to the publisher’s office.  We stood in the open doorway of a long room with a desk at one end and a small conference table at the other.  A map of the United States covered the opposite wall.  It was a quiet moment for Patricia Patterson, as if we were at a special place, like Kennedy’s grave or the tomb of the unknown soldiers, and we were supposed to be respectful here: no picnicking allowed in the cemetery.

There was no one inside.  Patricia Patterson stood beside the open door with her hands together and she said, “Mr Brackett is out of the office in the afternoons.  He goes to the radio station, and after that, he works at the remote.”

I nodded, I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was obviously supposed to understand, so I made the moves of understanding.

“He’ll see you the day after you start,” she said.

I said, “When will that be?”

“We need you to start tomorrow if you can,” she said, with a look at me to confirm this.  “Sure,” I said.

I drove into town from Brackett’s place, and managed to get lost for a while in what they call the Morningside neighborhood, and I saw a woman gardening on her front lawn and asked her for directions and so found Midtown, Fourteenth and Piedmont, and met with the landlord, a little Sephardic Jew, Corey had told me, named Garcia, who owned several properties in the area.

We stood in the gravel parking lot behind the building and shook hands.  “This is going to be the place to live in a few years,” said Garcia, and he waved a hand at the building behind him.  The back was a pale shade of landlord green and had metal fire stairs painted silver running up the corners to metal decks outside the back doors of the apartments.  A red-haired woman walked out on one of the decks in a short, dark blue bathrobe that showed off her legs.  I looked up and smiled at her: they were good legs, her hair hung down wet and red all around her white face and she drank coffee from a blue cup and I thought she looked back at me.  The green and silver glowed around her under the grey March sky.

Garcia walked me inside one of the back doors and we stood at the bottom of a stairwell.  “We’re going to fix this all up,” he said, and he gestured again, this time at the stairwell.  Someone had painted a Day-Glo hand on the wall, pointing up the stairs beneath the word UP, and an empty whiskey bottle and some beer cans lay in one corner.  The street doors were nailed shut.  He pointed up and I followed his finger, UP, and saw the stairwell light, a single bulb hanging bare at the end of a line three floors up.  “We’re going to put chandeliers in here,” he said.

I said, “Have these always been apartments?” and I gestured at the Day-Glo hand.

He shook his head.  “It was a halfway house before we bought it.  It just didn’t work out that way.  The neighborhood’s just too Midtown.”

Even though the neighborhood was just too Midtown and because they had not put chandeliers in and because it would be a few years before this would really be the place, I could afford the rent.  Garcia showed me a place on the top floor on the Piedmont side of the building and I wrote him a check.  He walked me to his car and gave me a key that he took from a large ring in the glove compartment.  In the back seat was a big sign that said Remodel Your Own Apartment.

“We’re going to put that up next week,” said Garcia.  “As soon as we can get somebody to hang it.”  He looked me up and down.  “You don’t know anything about building maintenance, do you?”

“No, sir,” I shook my head.

“Take it out of the rent, if you did.”

I smiled, “I can’t help you.”

“I don’t know anything about building maintenance, either,” he shrugged.  “I just buy and sell the places.  We’ll fix this place up.  Sell it.  Buy another.”

I had next to nothing to move into the place, so I went to the Starvation Army and bought some furniture, an easy chair and a small desk, a student’s desk, really, a desk for a kid, and a chair to go with it and an old floor lamp.  I got a pallet to sleep on from an alternative design store, and the bathroom stuff at a K-Mart.  I still wrote on a typewriter then, a second-hand Olympia portable that my father had brought back from Vietnam.

The first night at the place was difficult.  I was alone in a way I hadn’t been at the motel out on the interstate.  They had room service there and people in the night, the night man on the desk, you could step outside your room in the dark and see bright blue neon and white fluorescence that said you were not alone, that said there was some kind of an American promise somewhere out there that if you did just the right thing, or did it often enough, you would never have to die, you would live for ever, like Mickey Mouse or Elvis or the assassins on the grassy knoll, suspended forever and ageless, forever young in a history outside of history.  That was what I thought of, lying in the little sun room with the stars shining through the phone lines out the window overhead, I thought of that kind of freedom.

If you want to know the truth, I was just freaked.  I don’t know how my father would say it if he were writing about it for the newspaper or one of his books, I don’t know how to put it into words, but I was freaked.  I had never been this alone.  I didn’t have a phone to call home on, I was parentless and anonymous and living under an alias in a city that I did not know, I had a job, I was supposed to show up tomorrow morning and do something, it wasn’t a class in college, the people only knew my job description, no one knew me, what I was really doing, writing the book, and I wondered if I had the nerve to tell them: that would make it real, to tell them, that would put it into time and out in the open where they might ask to see it or they might say “How’s the writing going?” and then I would have to talk about it.  Until I told them it could remain a dream of freedom, but once spoken of it became an earnest gamble, with a purpose, a result, and I would be real along with it, or else not real, and so the book had to work, it had to make me Wiley Jones, not Willie but Wiley, and I wanted there to be someone somewhere who understood me and could explain me to myself and tell me I would be all right.  All I had was Corey Holland’s father, who did not know me at all, bogus letters of introduction for people who knew me even less.

I rolled over on my pallet and lay with my head on my arms, wide awake.  After a while, I got up and put on my robe and walked into the kitchen and poured myself a shot of Stoly from the refrigerator and stepped outside on to the landing and drew a deep breath of the cool night air.

I heard people down below me, and I stepped softly, barefoot, to the edge of the landing and looked down towards the sounds and saw the red-haired woman at the door of her apartment, embracing a black guy in a suit, they were absorbed in each other under the dim light that shone from the fixture above her door.  She lifted her leg up the side of his thigh and he slid his hand up her dress and lifted the hem above the top of her stockings, her skin was white as snow and she wore no panties, and he slipped his fingertips inside her and she moaned and reached down between his legs and stroked him up and down, and I got hard, watching his hand darkly stroking across her white ass, and I looked at her red hair curling down around her head and across her shoulders like fire, and I wanted to have her, too, I wanted to escape into her flesh, into some woman, and there was no woman there.

She reached out a hand and opened her door.  It swung open slowly into the dark kitchen.

I turned away from them and drank all my vodka at once, it burned my throat and stomach, I wanted it to burn the desire out of me, and I went back inside to the sun room and turned on the light and sat down at my kid’s desk and took the cover off the typewriter and put some paper in and began to write.  I wrote about the light at the motel on the interstate.  I could look out the window of the sun room and see the same kind of light shining from the street lamps, but here and now it said only lonesomeness and anonymity, over and over, down the street.  Everything was still in the shaded park.  The traffic was light and listless and lonesome-sounding, so I did not look out the window, I looked inside and back instead and I tried to write about that promise that I had sensed, out there on the highway.

Chapter 2

I didn’t write on the typewriter much longer, I got the computer instead.  I got it from Brackett, from the systems manager’s supply of old equipment.  His name was Stan, and he had been in Patricia Patterson’s office when I interviewed, he said, “You write on a typewriter?” and he shook his head no.  He stroked his beard, thinking, and he said, “No, man.  We’ve got some stuff around here you can use,” and he took me from my office to the systems room, to a door in the back corner and into a deep closet lined with metal shelves.  He turned on the single bulb in the closet.  “A lot of this is old CPM stuff,” he said, looking up and down the shelves, stroking his beard, building the system mentally, “but we’ve got some DOS stuff in here, too.”

“Here!” he said, and he pointed to a machine sitting on the top shelf.  “Just the thing for a first novel — an 8088, the first PC.”

He reached up and hauled it all down onto the bottom shelf.  He got the monitor from the shelf and set it beside the system unit.  “We’ve got some cables around here somewhere,” he said, then pointed to the back corner, “in that box over there.  We’ll load it into your car.”

“Are you sure it will be all right?” I said.

“Sure,” he said.  “Just don’t tell Matt.”  He smiled and said, “That’s something you’ll hear a lot around here:  ‘just don’t tell Matt,'” and he stroked the ends of his moustache.  “There ought to be a printer back here, too.”  He turned back to the shelves and he reached up to the top and got down another piece of equipment.  “This is only a nine-pin,” he said.  He set the printer with the other stuff.  “But it ought to get you started.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem,” he said.  “I just hate to see people working on typewriters.”

We carried the equipment down the hall together and out the back, running into Patricia Patterson in the main office.  Stan smiled at her and said, “Setting Wiley here up to work at home.”  She nodded and said to me, “Don’t tell Matt,” and Stan looked at me, See?

When I got back to my office, the pink dream from the day before was waiting for me, leaning on the corner of my desk.  She stood up as I came into the doorway, and she smiled.  “Hi,” she said, “I’m Nickie.  I’m Matt’s secretary.”

“I’m Wiley,” I said, stepping into the office.  “It’s good to meet you.”

“I’m sure,” she said, and she looked at the computer.  “Matt wanted me to show you a few things about the office system, since Grant’s out of town with him today.”

“Grant?”

“Grant Cummings, the editor-in-chief.  He’d show you this if he were here.”

“No one’s here?”

“Just you in Editorial, today,” she said.

“That must be why Patricia wanted me to start today.”

Nickie smiled.  “Patricia’s paranoid.  She’d want somebody to be here to pick up the phone and say ‘Editorial!’ even if that’s all they knew.”

I stepped closer and I could smell her, she wore oil of drakar.  My senior year of high school I had obsessively dated a girl who bathed in the stuff.  Anne Mathers.  Anne Mathers would do everything but fuck me.  She would always say, “I can’t do it with you,” just before she made me come, and I kept coming back to her, of course, enslaved to her play, because I could not believe there was not an implied promise that she would do it, eventually, and that it would be better than any other girl’s, because all her foreplay was so masterful, because she was so good at making me helpless.  But she never did it, she just talked about it while she masturbated me.  So that smell meant sexual play to me, and helpless craving, and I began to wonder about Nickie, what her tease was like and if she were teasing me now, in a pale pink suit with her ash blonde hair and pink lips and pink nails shining on the edge of the desk.

“I think I can handle answering the telephone,” I said.

“I’m sure you can,” she said.  “But Matt wanted me to show you the office system, so you could read the magazines, and he wanted me to show you ProComm, too, so you could take a shot at some of the work.”

“OK,” I said, and turned to the computer against the wall.  “Do I sit here?”

“That’ll get us started.”

She typed for me, leaning over my shoulder and filling my head with her scent, and I looked at her face in profile beside me and I thought we had definite possibilities.  “‘Wiley Jones’,” she said, “that’s your user name.  And now we type Y to log on as a new user.  Stan’s already got you in the data base.”  She stood up.  “Now choose a password.  I won’t watch.”  She turned away from the console.

I looked at the waiting prompt for a second, my mind full of sex and oil of drakar, I was very far from the office, and I typed redhead91.  Nothing displayed when I entered the word, and the system asked me to confirm the selection by re-entering it.  I typed redhead91 again, and I thought about the black man’s hand moving dark across the woman’s smooth white ass.  “OK,” I said.

“Good,” said Nickie.  “Now you want P for ProComm.”

“What’s Finder?” I said, and I pointed to the F selection on the menu.

“That’s the search program.  It’s $150 per query.”

“That’s a lot,” I said.

“It’s Matt’s profit center,” she said.  “Matt likes his profit center.”

“I can imagine.”

“You get a package from PR Newswire once a week,” she said.  “For the news section.  Have you used a modem before?”

“What’s a modem?”

“It’s really simple,” she smiled.  “It’s all automated, so you don’t have to understand anything.”

I said, “I like to understand things.”

She gave me a curious look.  “Then you may not be real comfortable at Brackett Data,” she said.  “See where it says ProComm on the menu?”  She pointed at the screen.  “That’s what you want.”

I pressed P for ProComm, followed the instructions and the program loaded.

“Now press Alt-D,” said Nickie, “to get the dialling directory.”

I pressed the keys and a screen of phone numbers appeared.

“See there, where it says CompuServe?” she said.

“Right,” I said, and I moved the screen highlight down to the CompuServe line and hit the enter key.  The phone dialled, and the machine made noises, and then the program said CONNECT and began to beep at us.

“You’re quick!” said Nickie.

“I’m Wiley!”  I turned and smiled at her.

She smiled back, pleased, and I felt good.  “Hey, you’re a fox!  See?” she said, pointing at the screen again.

I read the message, You have electronic mail waiting.

“That’s the copy from PR Newswire.”

“What is it?”

“Press releases.”

“About AIDS?”

“Right,” she said.  “You use them in the news section of Survivor.  See the read option on the menu?  Press that.”

More words scrolled on to the screen:  Message is binary, they said, and another menu scrolled into view.

“There,” Nickie pointed.  “Download.  That’s what you want.  You want to download the package.”

I pressed 7, to download, and a list scrolled up.

“CompuServe B-Plus,” she prompted me, and I pressed the corresponding number.  The screen said, Enter a filename for your computer, and Nickie said, “Up to eight letters, followed by a period and a three-letter extension.”

So I called it PR_AIDS.PKG, and the download began, a little window opened and a bar graph grew rightward as the file was transferred.

Nickie said, “You’ll edit that.  Matt said you’re in charge of the news section.”

“I suppose I’ll be doing a lot of reporting.”

She looked at me like I was a schoolboy.  “We don’t do any original reporting here.”

“What do we do?”

“We do PR Newswire,” she gestured at the screen.  “We do press releases.”

I looked at her, and she smiled slyly, amused by my naivete.  I smiled back at her.  “You like this, don’t you?”

“What?”

“Showing me the twisted ropes.”

She laughed.  “You are wily.”

I liked her, I wanted to take her clothes off and see where else she was pink.

“Now do an Alt-F4,” she said, and I pressed the keys.  The screen went black and the words appeared

Enter ‘EXIT’ to return to PROCOMM PLUS

G:\PCPLUS>

Nickie said, “Now type do pr_aids.pkg.”

I did, and more words appeared.

copy pr_aids.pkg g:\wp\docs

1 file(s) copied.

g:

cd \wp\docs

pkunzip pr_aids.pkg

PKUNZIP (R)  FAST!     Extract Utility

Searching ZIP: PR_AIDS.PKG

Inflating: 05’04’91.DOC

I turned to her and said, “What’s PKUNZIP?”

She sighed, she’d explained this too many times before.  “Zipping is a way of making a big file smaller.”

“OK.”

“The people at PR Newswire zipped the file.  That’s like taking a big sheet of newspaper and folding it up until it fits in a number ten envelope.”

“I follow you.”

“Now you’re unzipping it.”

“Restoring it to the original size.”

“Right!”  She smiled happily, I caught on fast.

I turned back to the computer screen.

exit

The screen went back to ProComm.

Nickie said, “Now you can quit — Alt-X.”  I pressed the keys and confirmed our exit.  She went on.  “Now you edit that file 05’04’91.DOC in the word-processing document directory when you load Word Perfect.  That’s the W on the menu.”

“OK.”

“Right now you want L for Library.”

“I see how it works,” I said.

“It’s intuitive,” she said, “once you get past the front end.”

“So I can read back issues from the Library,” I said as a menu of magazine titles appeared.

“Yes,” she said.  “You want S for Survivor.”  I pressed S.  “Of course,” she said, “you miss the ads, reading the electronic version.  They’re the real meat of it.”

“The ads.”

“Yes,” she said, and looked at me.  “It’s really about the ads.”

“It’s sure not about the writing,” I said.

She shook her head, and I liked the way her hair fell gently around her face.  “It’s advertising,” she said.  “Controlled circulation.  Do you know what that is?”

I did, but I wanted her to stay longer, so I shook my head.

She said, “That means Matt gives it away free, to people on mailing lists that he buys.  And he can sell ad space on the basis of the number of readers he’s got.  See?  They don’t subscribe, so he controls the circulation.”  She looked at me to see if I was following her, and I nodded.  “Actually,” she said, turning back to the computer, “it’s more complicated than that.  He controls the circulation because he’ll only give away Survivor to what they call ‘qualified’ subscribers.”

“Who’s qualified?” I said.

“Crazy people,” she said, with an edge in her voice, she was bothered by Survivor, she was bothered being here.

“Why do you say that?”

She sighed.  “It’s hard to explain.”  She held her hands up empty before her, full of an explanation she could not express, she let them drop and said, “A qualified subscriber is a doctor, or a pharmacist, or an insurance company, or a stockbroker, or a drug company, or a researcher.”  She looked at me again:  did I understand?  I looked back at her, waiting for the rest of it.  Her delicate shoulders rose and fell a little sadly, the gesture touched me, all this hurt her, and she said quickly, “A qualified subscriber is anyone who makes money off HIV/AIDS.”

She looked at me like I might think it was all her idea, and I wanted to reassure her.  I said, “I think I see what you mean.”  She relaxed a little, and I asked, “How about people with AIDS?  Are they qualified?”

She closed her eyes as if she felt a headache coming on, then opened them again and said, “No.”

I thought about it.  I said, “I think I’ve got it.”

She nodded, “We’re all looking for other jobs.”

I wanted to get a job where she got one.  “It’s not your fault.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She turned back to the computer screen that showed a listing of issue dates, she pointed and said, “You pick a number and read it online.  But it’s not about just what it says.  It’s about the ads.  That’s why I brought you those hard copies.”  She pointed to a stack of magazines on my desk, and I picked one up.  The cover blurb said You Need To Know: How To Spot the Carriers, and I flipped the pages, I saw ads for home-test kits and drugs and blood treatments and disaster shelters and books about the millennium dawning.  I closed it and put it back.

She said, “We’re just an advertising medium, really.  Like the newspapers.”

“I like you,” I said.

That made her smile softly, I had told her she was OK.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You’re all right, too,” she said.  “You’re so innocent.”

I didn’t know about that, I wanted to be hip.  “Is that good?”

She nodded.  “I don’t trust guys who know everything.”

“I don’t know everything.”

“I know,” she laughed, and I laughed with her, I had made her laugh and I felt good.

“Well, you’re set now,” she said, “and I’ve got work to do.”  She moved towards the door.

“Say,” I said, “can I call you if I need you?”

She looked pleased, but with what, I couldn’t tell.  She said, “Sure.”

“It’s called Survivor,” I said, “but there aren’t any survivors, are there?”

She smiled at me again softly, the way you might smile at talk about Santa Claus.  “As a matter of fact, there aren’t.”

I said, “Don’t you think that’s a little odd?”

“That’s how Brackett Data looks at things, and you might say Brackett Data is a little odd.”  And then she left me.

Chapter 3

I met the redhead that evening.  She parked next to me while I was unloading the computer equipment Stan had given me.  She drove an old pink Mustang with a ragged convertible top, and she wore a pair of blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt that said Venceremos! in red script across her breasts, and I looked at her red red hair.  She wore it up now, with strands hanging down here and there around her neck and ears, tiny green stone earrings nestled in her lobes and picked up the green of her eyes.  She carried a briefcase, and I could smell her sweat faintly, a scent that made me think of her heat with the black man the night before, I wondered how she liked to be touched, and if she had any panties on today.  I set the monitor on top of the computer beside the rear wheel of my car as she came walking around hers, and she stopped beside my tail-light and smiled and said, “Do you hack?  Do you program?”

“No,” I said, smiling back quickly.  “I’m a writer.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What do you write?”

“I’m writing a novel.  And I edit a magazine.”

“Really?” she said again.

“Really,” I said, and I smiled again.  We stood there for a moment, like a couple of little kids, really, really, and I thought I liked her.  “I just moved in here.”

“Yes,” she said, “how do you like the place?

I laughed.  “I can’t wait for the chandeliers in the stairwells.”

“Really,” she said and she caught herself with the word again and laughed.  “Garcia tells that to everybody who moves in here.”

“He’s got a sign now,” I said.

“‘Remodel Your Own Apartment,'” she said.  “He’s had it up before.”

“My name is Wiley Jones.”

“I’m Alix Roberts,” and she held out a hand.

I shook it.  Her skin was soft, but she was strong.  I gestured at the computer and said, “What about you, do you hack?”

“Yes,” she said.  “I’m sort of a writer too.  Writing computer programs is a kind of writing, don’t you think?”

“I couldn’t say.  I’ve never written one.”

“Then you wouldn’t know.”

I tried it.  “I might like to find out, though.”

She smiled a little.  “Are you going to write your novel on this?”  She gestured at the equipment.

“I’m going to try,” I said.  “You wouldn’t want to help me set this up, would you?”  I watched her hesitate, and I prompted her.  “I’ll give you a cold beer.”

She smiled again, I liked her smile:  her teeth were very white with her pale skin and her red red hair.  She said, “All right, let’s do it.”

I carried the stuff upstairs and we set it up on one side of the sun room.  She stood looking at the pallet under the other window, and I said, “This is where I sleep,” and I felt suddenly risky, without knowing why, I had let her in close for a moment, and though I liked having Alix in my bedroom, I felt chancy and out there and unsure.

She said, “It’s cool in the sun rooms at night, they catch the breeze.”  She stepped over to the computer on the desk and threw the red switch, and we watched it come on.  She sat at the console and read the drive, then said, “It looks like you’ve got a word processor on here and a communications program.”

“We use that at work,” I said.

“A word processor?”

“A communications program.”

“Do you really?”  She sounded interested by this.

“Yes,” I said.  “Can I do that sort of thing here?”

“If you’ve got a modem.”

“What’s a modem?” I said.

She smiled at me over her shoulder.  She wasn’t like Nickie, blonde and pink and delicate, and she wasn’t like Anne Mathers, either, there was something real behind her tease.  I liked her, her hair was red like fire and her skin was white like marble, she was these extremes and I wanted to travel into some extreme place with her.  I wondered who the black man was and whether he would be back.

She settled herself at the console again and said, “A modem is the hardware that physically connects you to the phone line.”

I said, “Do I have a modem?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Let’s look inside.”  She set the monitor to one side and opened the top of the machine with a little four-bladed screwdriver that she had on her key ring.  I saw it and said, “You’re an engineer.”

“That’s right.”  She slid the cover off the unit and looked inside.  “There’s your modem.”  She pointed at a green-glass circuit board with something round on it that looked like a bell.

I said, “Now if I only had a phone.”

“Aren’t you getting one?”

“I’ve already got it, but they won’t turn it on until tomorrow.  My deposit’s got to clear the bank.”

“It’s hard to get them to extend you any credit when you live in The Place,” she nodded.

“But it’s got atmosphere.”

She laughed and said, “I knew something smelled around here.”  She put the cover back on the machine and tightened the screws, then set the monitor on top of it.  She dusted it off with a yellow handkerchief from her hip pocket.

I didn’t want her to go before I could find out about the black guy.  I said, “What about that beer?”

“Yes, what about that beer?”

I got two from the refrigerator and we sat in the sun room, looking at the park.  She looked over her shoulder into the nearly empty living room behind us, she said, “You live simply.”

“Is that good?”

“Engineers like simplicity.”

“Maybe I’m not simple,” I said.  “Maybe I’m just broke.”

“You’re in the right place, either way.”

“What about you?” I said.  “What’s a bigtime engineer doing living at The Place?”

She squinted at me a little, then said, “How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-two,” I lied.

“And you edit a magazine.”

“OK,” I shrugged, “I’m the junior editor.”

She looked at me, measuring me.  “Were you trying to impress me?”

“Yes,” I said, I let her see some more of me, but I lost my breath a moment and covered myself with a drink of beer.

She sat back in the rocker and held up her beer and picked at the corner of the label on the bottle.  “What’s the magazine about?”

“AIDS.”

“You’re living in the right place, then,” she said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Didn’t Garcia tell you?”  She half-looked at me as she began to peel the label away from the bottle.

“Tell me what?” I said.

“What this place used to be.”

“He said it was a halfway house.”

“Halfway house.”  She paused with her bottle.  “This was a hospice for people with AIDS.”

“A hospice?”

“You know.”

I said, “A place to die.”

She looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s funny,” she said, returning to the bottle and peeling the label smoothly away from the sweating brown glass.  “They closed the hospice down, then two of the residents became tenants.”

“They moved in.”

“They never left.”

“That is funny,” I said.  “Are they still here?”

“Oh, they died a long time ago,” she shook her head.

I saw the Day-Glo hand pointing up the stairwell, UP.

Alix looked away, out the window.  She watched something in the distance for a moment, and I followed her gaze to a flock of birds flying over the park.  They circled together and roosted in a big oak tree.  Then she turned to me again and she said, “What’s wrong with college?”

“It’s too academic.”

She said, “That’s an answer to try on for size.  What’s really wrong?”

I nodded at the computer.  “I thought I’d see if I could really do it.”

“Write.”

“Yes,” I said.  “If I can do it, why waste the time in college?”

“That’s more like it,” she said, “but I still don’t think that’s quite the answer.”

I decided, I said, “You want the answer?”

“Sure.”

“I got scared.”

“Of what?”

“Dying,” I said.

“Are you dying?”

“No,” I said, “not yet.”

“Not yet, but you’re scared of it.”

“I have got to die some time.”

“We all do.”

“But it’s going to happen,” I said.  She was like everybody else, dying was just a word.  “It’s going to happen to you personally.”

“You can’t live thinking like that.”

“Why not?”

“You’d go crazy.”

“Maybe I’ve gone crazy,” I said.

She looked at me closely now, interested, and I felt relieved to interest her.  “It’s OK to be crazy,” she said and sat back in the rocker and rocked it once.  “What got you scared of dying?”

I drank some beer.  “I was in an accident about a year and half ago.”

“Were you hurt bad?”

“I broke my back.”

Her eyes widened a little.  “Jesus,” she said.

“And I broke both of my legs.”

“Jesus,” she said again.  “What hit you?”

“A car.  A big white Ford Custom.”

She looked at me steadily, waiting for the rest.

I said, “It was right before junior year.  I was walking through Georgetown, on my way to see my faculty advisor.  I was supposed to declare a major.  It was a big deal.”

“Was it?”

“It was to my father.  He wanted me to declare for journalism, like he had.”

“What did you want?”

“English,” I said.  “If you let me, I’d just read all the time.”

“That’s all right.”

“We argued about it.  He said you’ve got to make a living.  And I hate that stuff, that practical kind of stuff.”

She laughed.  “Me too,” she said.  “Fuck it.”  She drank her beer, smiling.

“So I was thinking about our argument, thinking about all that.  I had a book of poetry with me, I took something to read in case I had to wait.  I wasn’t paying any attention, and I stepped out in the street against the light.”

“And it hit you?”

“Yes.”

“That’s horrible,” she said.  “Were you conscious?”

“For a while.  I lay on the ground and looked up at the grille of the car.  It looked huge and white, I remember noticing that, the color, or the lack of color, and I looked beside me and I saw my book.  It was open on the pavement, the pages turned back and forth in the air, slow, and I could see hundreds of tiny red spots across the printing, an accidental pattern like the background of a Japanese print, and then I realized that it was my own blood.”

She was fascinated.  “How could you be conscious through all that pain?”

“I didn’t feel the pain.  Not right away.  I felt a big numbness through my head, like I’d just been shot through with novocaine.  I remember lying there and thinking that I couldn’t feel anything and wondering if my spinal cord had been broken and trying to move my legs, and I couldn’t move them, and I thought I was paralysed, and then the pain came, gradually at first, through the shock, and I knew I wasn’t crippled, because I could feel all the broken things, and then I lost consciousness.”

I felt light through my guts as I told it, and a little vertigo, all floating on a cushion of the words about this horror, unreal now, as if it had happened to another body, not this one, to another me, it happened to Willie, not to Wiley, and yet it was there, too, immediate, as I told it, a frightening thing flooding over me.  It was as if I had forgotten it, had let it slip out of immediacy with the healing and the passage of time, and now my words drew it back, and it left me breathless.

She said, “How long were you in the hospital?”

“A year.”

“A broken back.”

I drank some beer.  “So after that it was hard to go back to school.”

“I can imagine it would be,” she said.

“I’d sit in classes, and I’d find myself thinking about lying in my hospital bed, I’d be thinking about my hospital room.  It was a good room, it had a window with a tree outside.  I couldn’t listen any more.  I started failing classes.  I couldn’t listen, I was always checking my watch to see what time it was, to see if class was over yet, and it was never over soon enough.”  I wondered how much she understood.  I wondered how much I understood.  I said, “I had to have something real.”  She watched me closely, listening, I felt like I had her attention and I liked having her attention, and I saw the black man holding her, kissing her.  I said, “How old are you?”

“I’m thirty-two,” she said quietly.  She set her beer on the floor and lifted her hands to her head and undid her hair and let it down.  It fell around her face and shoulders, it shone like a cat’s fur:  she was beautiful, white and red.  She shook her head and leaned and picked up the beer and said, “Is that too old for you?”

“Not at all.  I can’t wait to be thirty-two.”

“I’ll bet you can’t.”  She sipped the beer and looked at me.  “You’re writing a novel — what’s it about?”

I didn’t know what it was about, but I wouldn’t tell her that.  “It’s a love story.”

“You know about love,” she said.

I shrugged.  “Enough to write a novel.”

She said, “You’re precocious.”

“Is that good?”

She thought about it, she nodded, “Yes.”

“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

I smiled at her.

“I’m in jail,” she said and she stretched a little in her chair and sipped her beer.  “I landed on Park Place with four hotels and couldn’t pay the rent.  You know.  Go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.”

“You’re alone then,” I said.  I didn’t want the black man to be there.  I didn’t think he was or they wouldn’t have been so hot in the doorway, they would have gone straight inside, but I didn’t want him to be any sort of lover either, I wanted him to be someone casual that she had picked up for a quick fuck and forgotten already.

“You are precocious.”

“You’re right.”

“Your beer is making me sleepy.”

“It does that on an empty stomach.”  I wanted her to stay for dinner.

She stood up.  “I need to be going.”

I stood up with her, holding my beer.  I said, “Come back when I get the phone.”

She looked at me, she knew I wanted her to stay.

“To show me how the communications program works,” I said.

“Oh, sure,” she said.  “Sure, I’ll show you how it works.”

“How to communicate,” I said.

She smiled at this.  “I don’t know if we’ll get that real.”

“Could be,” I said.

She shook her head wryly.  “You never can tell.”

So I thought she had left it open.  I walked with her to the back door and out onto the landing.  I said, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like another beer?”

She smiled again, she knew what I wanted.  She said, “You are precocious.”

“I’m a writer.”

“Well, you go write something,” she said, “on your new computer.  I’m going to take a shower now, and eat something, and when you get a phone, we’ll communicate some.”

“All right.”

She turned and went down the stairs to her apartment.  I stood at the top of the stairs watching her, watching her hips move inside her faded blue jeans, and they were tight enough so that I could just make out the panty lines, and as I listened to her loafers ringing on the metal stairs, I told myself that if she didn’t look back it was because she was thinking of the black guy, leaving me to call him and see when they could get together and be hot again, and as her right foot hit the landing, her head turned slightly and she glanced over her shoulder at me.  She smiled the slightest smile, she liked me watching her, and the black guy was all over.  I was glad, she was sexy and she enjoyed it and I enjoyed it with her.

I went back into the sun room and sat down at the console, looking at the sharp little amber letters C:\WP against the black screen.  I opened the bottom drawer of the desk and got my manuscript, and I started the word processor and began to enter what I had written. I sipped the beer and decided I would get a bookcase.  I would set the printer on top of it, and keep my writing on the shelves.  So I was excited:  there was Nickie to be excited about and there was Alix Roberts, without her panties and with them, too, and here was this machine to write on that made the words come like a river and then moved them around on the screen like mercury, and here I was writing, I was living just like a real writer.

Chapter 4

Early the next morning, Patricia Patterson came to my office.  I was arranging my desk and looking now and then at a picture on the opposite wall I hadn’t noticed before:  a man in a blue suit with a red, white and blue striped necktie stood in front of some government building downtown, looking like the personification of a creed or conviction beneath a sky-blue sky.  I realized I had seen this same guy in Patricia Patterson’s office, and hanging on the walls in the hallways, and I guessed he must be Matt Brackett, in the flesh.  I rolled my chair from side to side behind my desk and watched his eyes in the photograph, following me.

Just then Patricia Patterson showed up.  She leaned in my office doorway with a cigarette going in one of her little plastic mouthpiece things and she puffed on it and said, “Matt will see you now.”  She led me out of Editorial trailing smoke behind her and through the main office to Mr Brackett’s door, where she paused for a moment and looked me up and down, it reminded me of the way my mother used to look me over before I went out on a date, and it struck me as natural that Patricia would want me to look good, because she had hired me.  Nickie sat at her desk, outside Brackett’s door, slicing open the morning mail, and I looked at her while Patricia checked me out.  Patricia turned and knocked on the door to Brackett’s office.  I heard him say, “Come in.”

She opened the door and followed me in.  We stood at the end of the office beside the conference table and the wall map of the United States.  She said, “Matt, this is Wiley Jones.”

He looked up from his desk, preoccupied with something, he frowned and he said, “Have you taken care of the Anna Louis matter?”

Patricia looked a little flustered.  “Not yet.”

“Why not?” he said, curt, bothered.

“I wanted to discuss it with you again.”

“What’s there to discuss?” he said.  “Fire her.”

The thought came immediately, I’m next, it’s a trap.  My stomach was empty and I felt light-headed and full of fear, the way I did when my father lost it drunk and came out of his studio slamming the door in the middle of the night, about to be gored, about to be fired on my second day at work.

“I agree with you,” said Patricia, “but there may be room for a civil rights complaint here.”

“What?” he said, even more irritated.  “She’s too skinny.  Fire her.”

“That’s just it,” said Patricia.  “I’m not sure that skinny is a firing issue.”

“I’ve been over this before,” he said.  “I can fire anyone I want for any reason I want and Anna Louis is too damn skinny to work in member services.  The members don’t like skinny people.  She’s depressing, she looks like she has AIDS.  Hell, for all we know, she does have AIDS.  She’s got to go.  Do it now.”

Patricia’s eyes dropped to the carpet.  “Yes, Matt.”

He looked at me as if he had just noticed me.  His face softened a bit with curiosity and he said, “Who did you say this was?”

“Wiley Jones,” she looked up.  “He started yesterday in Editorial.”

“Certainly,” he said.  “I knew that.”  He stood up behind his desk and extended his hand to me.  I walked the length of the room and took it, my knees were weak and my stomach turned, I remembered Anna Louis from Patricia’s hiring tour:  she had worn a severe black and white suit, her clothes hung on her with a loose anorexic look, and her skin was whiter than snow.  Her deep shining dark eyes were round and moist and lined with dark shadow, Gothic girl, and now she would stand in the line at the Department of Labor, and a clerk would say, Reason for termination? and Anna would cry out, I look like I have AIDS! Matt Brackett’s hand was cool and firm.  He smiled with perfect teeth against a golfer’s tan and his hair was clear white, combed back.  His suit was blue and his tie a deep red with tiny silver stripes against a white shirt, like his pictures.  He said, “Good to meet you at last.”

“It’s good to meet you too, sir.”

“Call me Matt,” he said.  He gestured towards a chair and said, “Have a seat.”

I sat.  Patricia Patterson said, “I’ll be with Anna if you need me,” and I heard the door close softly.

Matt sat and smiled at me.  I smiled back.  A computer sat on a typewriter stand at his elbow and displayed some sort of data base:  titles and keywords and text in fields across the screen, with FINDER in bold white letters on a purple band across the top.  A clear pitcher of water stood on the desk between us, with two glasses.  Matt poured some.  “Branch water?” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

He poured me a glass, still smiling, his teeth looked sharp.

“Pure water, the way God made it,” he said, and the water gurgled, filling the glass.  “The water of life.”

I took my glass and sipped.  “Quite refreshing,” I said.

A low, mahogany case to my right held about a thousand cassette tapes, and on top of it sat a black plastic deck and a walnut and aluminium reel-to-reel.  I could see some titles printed in black capital letters on the spines of the cassettes:  The Wrong and the Right and Sex, Society, and Security and The Age of Impurity.  Most of the others had dates pencilled on them.  Matt said, “Did Nickie show you our system yesterday?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Call me Matt.”

“Sorry,” I shook my head at myself.  “Matt.”

“You’re respectful,” he said.  “You were brought up right.  I like that.”

“Thank you.”

“Patricia tells me you’re taking some time off from school to see what the real world is like.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “I decided to test some of the theories.”

He laughed at this, it seemed to gratify something in him.  “That’s good, that’s very good.  I like that.  Put them to the acid test.  Tell me, what year are you in?”

“I’m a sophomore.  A rising junior, actually.”

He thought for a moment.  “When I was a sophomore, I campaigned for Richard Nixon.  He was running against Kennedy then.”  He smiled at this, he went back a long way.  “He should have won.  He deserved to win.  History would be very different had he won.  But Kennedy’s money bought the White House, that time.  Never again, thank God.”  He sat a little forward and his right hand formed into a fist on the desk.

“That was a victory of appearance over reality, form over substance.”  He expanded.  “Why, do you realize, that man used the highest office in this land to indulge in fornication with movie stars?  Movie stars!  Do you understand?”

I understood, I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Matt,” he said shortly, and raised the glass of branch water and drained it.  He folded his hands on the desk before him, and I noticed that the nails of two of his fingers were bitten down to the quick.  He said, “Disease is our subject here.  Dis-ease,” he enunciated the syllables distinctly.  “We minister to a mind and a body and a body politic all dis-eased.  Do you understand?”

I thought I was supposed to understand so I said, “I think so.”

He said, “I don’t think you do.”

I said, “No, sir,” and suddenly I just wanted to write the fucking novel, I didn’t want to have to understand him.  It felt warm in the office, close, then the air conditioning kicked on and I caught a whiff his aftershave, it mixed badly with the smell of my own, and I was hungry, I wanted to get out of there.

“Matt,” he smiled gently.

I felt slow, I said, “Matt.”

He smiled bigger.  He said, “Modern life is a dis-ease.  A continual unsettling.  Whole peoples — our people — are given over in troops to dis-ease and death.  Do you realize what is happening in Africa?”

“Sir?”

“Matt,” he said.  “Wholesale sexual suicide by the masculine members of a promiscuous culture that is too much like our own.”  He paused to let the message sink in.  Then:  “Like us, they can withstand neither their vices nor their remedies.”

I remembered when my mother went through religion, sitting in church, waiting for the sermon to end.  Then she had discovered Valium.

Matt leaned forward a bit and said softly, “Did you know that in Africa they remove the woman’s clitoris?”

“No, sir,” I said, and sweat broke out across my brow, my head lifted involuntarily, I was warm again and I tried to move my face further into the stream of cool air coming from the ceiling vent, but the air conditioning cut off and the room closed in snug around me.

He said slowly, “The more to inhibit the wanton behavior, you see.  To soothe the dis-ease.”

“Does it work?”

“No,” he said quickly, and he slid his hands together again before him, the fingers tented together around each other, I noticed age spots on his tanned skin.  “The black man is unfortunately limited by nature in his capacity to control himself, and it doesn’t work.”

“I see.”  I was understanding things now.

“They are, however, the happiest people on earth,” he said, smiling at them over there in Africa, in Watts and Harlem, they sang songs and danced.  “It’s too bad we won’t be able to save them from themselves.”

“I understand I’ll be working on the news.”

“Periodicals,” he said, and he turned and looked through a small stack of papers to his right, he pulled one from the middle and placed it before me to see.  I leaned forward:  it was an organization chart, and his finger came out and pointed to a box near the bottom.  Wiley Jones, it said, Periodicals.  “I designed the chart myself.”

“I see,” I said, though I had no idea what I saw.

He said, “Periodicals expand our coverage while only marginally increasing costs.”

I knew this was supposed to interest me, I said, “Really?  How do you do that?”

“Libraries,” he said, “instead of subscriptions.”  He pointed at the data base and said, “Finder here lists the articles, our circulation manager goes to Emory and photocopies them, you write them up.  Let the alumni foot the bill.”

I said, “Smart.”

“The circulation manager is our black staff,” he said.

“I remember meeting him,” I said.

“Fills orders, does errands.  Quite capable, really.”

“I see.”

“I’m sure you do,” he smiled.  “You strike me as a bright young man.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I remembered it this time, “Matt.”

He smiled bigger.  “That’s it!” he said.  “What do you know about controlled circulation?  Anything?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I did a study.  It’s covered in my résumé.”

“Yes,” he said, he turned to the stack of papers again, he found my résumé and skimmed it, he said to himself, “Exceptional,” and he looked at me and said, “Patricia tells me you’re a friend of the Hollands.”

“I’m in school with their son.”

“Intelligent bunch,” he said.  “They understand the nature of dis-ease.  And they understand the importance of appearances and realities in treatment.”

I said, “Treatment.”

The finger came up again.  He said, “‘Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved, or not at all.’  Hamlet said that.”

I said, “Patricia didn’t tell me you were a Shakespearean.”

“Found it in Bartlett’s,” he said in a confidential tone.  “I use it on the radio show now and then.  Intimidates the liberals, they never read anything written before 1960.”  Sitting back in his chair, he said, “Treatment.  The liberals treat the disease with appearances of concern, but we will treat the soul dis-ease itself, soon.  How will we treat it?”

He waited, I realized I was supposed to answer, but I bet I wasn’t supposed to answer correctly, and, anyway, I did not know who we were.  So I said, “How?”

He pounded the desk once softly with his fist.  “With realism,” he said.  “That’s real-ism, not liberalism or socialism or communism.  Real-ism.  Do you know what they’re doing in Cuba?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“Strict segregation,” he said.  “Private residences in private camps.  None of this nonsense about ‘human rights.’  They take care of them there.”

“But they’re socialists in Cuba, aren’t they?”

“Yes!” he cried, and he pounded the desk again.  “Gives the lie to all their humanitarian claptrap, doesn’t it?  Why, they abort the foetuses of infected women.  We can’t allow that, of course.”  He was the social scientist at work now, measuring out what could and couldn’t be allowed.  “But Fidel has had a dose of real-ism:  he knows his economy won’t tolerate an epidemic of AIDS cases.  There’d be revolution then!”  He smiled at Fidel’s impending revolt.

I sat there, wondering what the camps were like, down in Cuba, waiting for the rest of it.  I knew there was more.

“That’s reality,” he said with a small wave of his hand, “dollars and cents, dollars and sense.”  He placed a finger aside his temple:  “that’s the essence of real-ism, that’s the real cost of AIDS,” he italicized his words as he talked.  “Our investors column covers it,” he said.

“I saw that,” I said.  “I wasn’t sure what it was.”

“Covers the standings of drug companies’ stock,” he said.  “Important thing to know.  You’ll sometimes cross-reference a periodical review to the investors column.  Clinical trials of vaccines and such.  Brokers and financial analysts are among our qualified subscribers.”

“I see, sir,” and I did see, and he was sir, and I wondered if I wanted to stay at Brackett Data, I just wanted to pay the bills so I could write.

“Matt,” he said, and in a low voice, as if it were a secret, he went on, “There are people who would like to see operations like this one stopped.”

I said, “Really?”

“The sort of people who voted for Jack Kennedy.  Homosexuals, AIDS activists, leftists.  The kind of people who voted for George McGovern.”

Now I knew who we were, and I wondered for an instant if I could pull it off here, he was Corey Holland writ large, and I thought of my father, who had voted for George McGovern, I thought of what Matt might say or do if he knew about that.

Survivor is read,” he said.  “Survivor is one of the most widely read AIDS publications in the country.”

“I had no idea.”  The idea repulsed me.

“A national distribution of 50,000, every month,” he said.  “And we don’t pull punches like these other magazines, AIDS and Behavioral Health.”  He frowned, AIDS and Behavioral Health incensed him.  “We call a victim a victim, we label degenerates degenerate.

I wondered if my name would be on the periodicals.

He sat back and looked at me, sizing me up.  He said, “I conduct many affairs from this central business — the radio show —” his hand rose into the air, the fingers spread apart, holding the many affairs gingerly — “other things.  If all works out well here for you, perhaps you’d care to aid me in some of those.”

“Whatever I can do to be of assistance.”

“I think you’re going to be of great assistance, Wiley.”

“I hope so,” I said.  I had no idea what I hoped, I recited my lines from the script I imagined in his head.

“Let’s see what sort of job you do with periodicals,” he said, back to the business.

“When do I start?” I said, I thought periodicals would at least get me out of his office.

“Grant will show you,” he said.  “Have you met Grant Cummings?”

“No,” I said.  “Just Patricia, Stan and Nickie.”

“Grant is your supervisor, Grant Cummings, he heads up Editorial.”  He sat back in his chair.  “He’s been here a while.  He understands our future potential.”

“Yes?”

He leaned forward and continued, “I want you to think about the future at Brackett Data.  I want you to think about us in terms of your future.”

“Mrs Patterson outlined the benefits.”

“But those are just the benefits,” he said, and he waved a hand at his computer.  “I want you to consider the future.”

“The computer,” I said, looking at the fields of data across his screen, wondering what reality they represented.

“Exactly,” he said, and he began to talk a little faster.  “In the future, everything will center around it.  Do you read PC Magazine?  Print is dead.  The book is over, finished, we live in cyberspace now.  We’re heading pell-mell towards the officeless office.  Do you understand?  Telecommuting.  I do it.  Eventually, you will, too.”  He waved a hand again at his screen of data.  “The radio program is an extension of that.  The global village,” he said.

“I’ll have to get Stan to show me more of our operation.”

Our operation,” he smiled at me.  “I think you’ll do fine here,” he said, and I thought the gifted part was seeing me through it.

I stood up with him and extended my hand.  “Thank you, Matt.”

“That’s it!”

Outside the office, Nickie sat at the counter beside her desk, still opening mail.  I leaned against the door and drew a deep breath and, with a will, relaxed my shoulders, I felt like I used to in the hospital when someone was examining me, like I was really having an out-of-body experience and couldn’t feel the needles and the probes.

Nickie looked up and smiled.  I smiled back as best I could and stepped over to her, I breathed in her scent and it carried me away from Matt.

“It’s unnerving to talk to Matt,” she said, and cranked the lever down on the opener.  “Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” I said, and I laughed nervously.

“That’s good, Wiley,” she said, “to be able to laugh after an interview with Matt.”

I liked hearing my new name.

She said, “Did he talk about telecommuting?”

“As a matter of fact, he did.”

“That’ll be the day,” she said, and sliced open another letter, “when he lets us work out of his sight.”

I looked at the door to his office.  “Can he hear you?” I said.

She shrugged.  “Who cares?  I’ve been here too long.”

“How long is too long?” I said.

“Two years.”  She pounded the letter opener.

“That’s not too long.”

“It is around here.  Wait till you meet Cummings.”

“He’s here today?”

“Baby,” she said and slipped another letter into the opener, “he’s been here forever.”  Her fist came down on the lever again.

“And how long is forever?”

She stopped and looked at me.  “Long enough for Matt to trust him.”

“He doesn’t trust me?” I said.

She shook her head decisively.

“Why did he give me the job, then?” I asked.

“Because he had to.”  She picked up the mail and began to sort it into piles.  “Because he can’t do it all by himself.  He would if he could.  He’d love that, hooked into some giant computer, all wired up with electrodes in his brain, cranking out this stuff month after month.”  Her telephone rang, and she answered it.  She looked at me and said, “Yes, he’s right here,” and she said, “I’ll tell him, yes,” and she hung up.  “That was Cummings,” she said.  “You’re wanted in Editorial.”

I decided to try her.  I said, “Can I buy you lunch?”

She smiled.  “You are wily,” she said.

“You said it.”

“OK.  Noon sharp, by the time clock,” she said with a slight smile, and I left her that way.

Chapter 5

When I got back to my office a guy in his middle forties with thick horn-rimmed glasses was waiting in my doorway.  He smiled kindly and said softly, “You must be Wiley.”

“Wiley Jones,” I said.

“Grant Cummings,” he said, he had one of the gentlest voices I’d ever heard.  “Editor-in-chief.”

He held out his right hand.  It shook with fine tremors, the same way my father’s did the morning after.  I wondered if he drank his coffee black, the way my father did, jangling the nerves even worse, until he felt racked enough to take the first drink of the day.  His hair was uncombed at the back and his pants were unpressed, and there was an old catsup stain on his blue and white tie.  “My office is right next door here,” he said, and he led me into it.  He sat down at his desk and produced a pack of brown cigarettes from the clutter of papers and books and pulled some paper matches from his shirt pocket.  He asked, “Do you smoke?”

“No, thank you.”

“I shouldn’t,” he said, and he fumbled a cigarette from the pack and lit up, the flame trembling in his hand.  He waved the smoke away, then looked at me again and said, “Sorry I wasn’t here yesterday.”

“That’s all right,” I said.  “Nickie did a fine job of orienting me.”

“She’s very efficient,” he said.  “We were at an executive meeting of the Research Council.”

“What’s that?”

“The AIDS Research Council,” he said.  “It’s a group of AIDS businessmen Matt put together.  What do you know about AIDS, anyway?”

“I know how you get it.”

“Yes,” he nodded.  “And you know what to do about that.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you know where it comes from?”

“It came out of Africa, didn’t it?”

“Out of Africa,” he said, and he turned and looked out the window of his office at the planes lined up for takeoff across the field.  He said, “Have you ever read that?”

Out of Africa?”

He looked at me again, his face brightening.  “Then you have read it.”

“No, but I’ve heard of it.”

“So few people read anything any more.  Especially here.”

“I like to read,” I said.  “I’m writing a book.”

“Really?” he said.  “About what?”

“It’s a novel.”

“I’ll bet it’s a love story.”

“You’re right.”  I felt grateful for his interest, I wanted suddenly to write something he would like.  “I mean, I think it is.”

“A love story will sell.”  His right eyebrow rose significantly.  “Keep an eye to the dollar.  All the great writers did.  James, Dickens.”

“Yes,” I said.

“We keep an eye to the dollar here,” he said.  “We take a different slant on things.  Matt does.  Have you met Matt?”

“I just came from his office.”

“I’ll bet he talked about appearance and reality.”

“Yes, he did.”

“I had a professor in college who talked about that.”  He turned and looked out the window.  “He said it was Shakespeare’s great theme.  I can’t really see Matt and Shakespeare together on anything, though.”  He was talking out the window, I felt like an eavesdropper.  He faced me again.  “He didn’t talk to you about the future, did he?”

“Why, yes, he did,” I said.

“He did?”  He sat up, surprised and obviously pleased.  “He got excited then, he must like you.  That’s a real plus.  For us, I mean, for Editorial.  Of course, Editorial is just me and you, but it’s a plus, for once.  Matt likes you.”

“He talks about the future with people he likes?”

“It’s a very good sign,” said Cummings.  He sat gazing at me.  He took a puff on his cigarette and said, “How did you happen to apply for work here?”

“I was referred here by a friend.”

“A friend?”

“The Holland family.”

“Don’t know them,” he said.  “I’m always curious about how people come to work here.”

“How did you come to work here?” I said.

His eyes betrayed surprise at the question.  “I was in upstate New York,” he said slowly.  “Working for a small publisher.  It was a sudden thing.  I had to leave suddenly, I had to arrange for employment quickly.”  He took the cigarette from his mouth and smiled at me, there was something hopeful in the smile, some hope of understanding.  “I bought an Atlanta paper, because it was someplace far away.  I saw this ad,” he said.

I felt responsible for him, I asked the question that got us here.  I said, “I see.”

He put his hands together on the desk and he looked down at them.  The cigarette smoke rose in a thin blue column, and he seemed to have strayed into some area of thought that held him.  He coughed suddenly, his shoulders hunched and he coughed again and then he couldn’t stop, he put his cigarette in the ashtray and he covered his face with his hands and coughed violently.  With one hand over his mouth he reached to the bottom drawer of his desk and came up with a bottle of Vicks Day Care cough medicine.  He opened the bottle of marmalade-colored syrup and drank it like you would a Coke, great long swallows that you could watch take effect, easing him down from his fit and settling him.  He set the bottle down and wiped his lips and said, “Sorry.  I’ve got a cold that just won’t go away.”

I looked at the bottle of Day Care in his hand and wondered how much he went through in a week.  It was one of the more ingenious drinking schemes I’d ever seen.  He capped the bottle and put it to one side of his desk.  Then he looked up at me again, his eyebrows rose, and he said, “Yes, well.  You were saying.”

“I was referred here.”

“By friends,” he said, and he smiled, he put the cigarette to his lips and drew on it.  “Did your friends tell you anything about Brackett Data?”

“No.”

He leaned toward me conspiratorially.  “Are you sure these people are your friends?”

This made me smile.  I said, “They’re acquaintances, really.”

He sat back, his eyes closed for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.  That was out of line.”  He opened his eyes, and they implored my understanding.  “It’s just that Brackett Data takes a different slant on things.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You write,” he said.  “You think about the reader, surely.”

“Certainly.”

“Good,” he said.  “Good.  You want the reader to like you.”

“Yes.”

He sat forward and looked at me, his eyes grew large and round.  “And who is the reader?” he said.

“He’s a hypothetical.”

“Not here!” he said, and his eyebrows rose.  “Not at Brackett Data.  Here he’s The Reader,” capitalizing the letters with strokes of his cigarette.  “He’s Matt!”

“Matt?”

“Right!”

I said, “What about your circulation?”

He sat back and waved his cigarette imperially.  “Leave it to Circulation,” he said.  “This is Editorial.”

I said, “Nickie showed me the Library yesterday.”

“You’ve seen the magazine, then,” he said, looking a little alarmed.

I said, “I’ve read Survivor, yes.”

He swallowed and he looked at me and said, “Do you want to stay?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t want to quit?”

I had been thinking about it, but I felt too lazy to go out and look for another job, and, then I thought that anywhere would be the same, doing something I didn’t care about to finance my real life.  So I said, “Why would I want to quit?”

“A lot of people aren’t too happy with the editorial slant around here.”

I shrugged again.  I said, “It’s not my magazine.”

Grant Cummings smiled happily.  “That’s the way to look at it.”  He got up and I rose with him, he came around his desk and patted me on the back, he said, “That’s just the attitude to take.”  We walked back to my office.

“That was an interesting column about sex education in the latest issue,” I said.

Grant flushed and looked flustered, almost angry.  “Patricia Patterson made me write that,” he said.

“It said there’s no such thing as safe sex,” I said.

We stepped into my office and Grant sat in the orange plastic chair across from my desk.  He waved his cigarette in the air.  “Of course there’s safe sex.”

“Well, of course,” I said.  I leaned on the corner of the desk.

“But that’s not the Brackett Data slant, you see?”  His eyes narrowed and he looked at me closely.  “Here, there’s no safe sex.”

“It usually is a risky proposition.”  I thought I was being funny.

But he shook his head.  “See,” he said, “if there were safe sex, then it would be safe for the homosexuals, too.  And we can’t have that.  It’s not like the movies here, let me tell you.”  He stopped suddenly and looked at me, a little surprised.  “But I shouldn’t be so negative, not when you’re just starting.”

“It’s all right,” I said.  “I like to know the score.”

“The score,” he said.  He shook his head sadly and said, “I wish I knew the score more often.”

“Maybe we can work on that.”

He brightened again.  “Yes,” he said, “maybe we can.”  He puffed on his cigarette.  “We — that has a nice ring to it.”

“Yes, it does.”

“It’s lonely here, sometimes.”

“In Editorial.”

“It’s because we’re not a profit center.”

“Nickie talked about that.  Matt likes profit centers.”

He nodded.  “Editorial isn’t one, of course.”  He leaned forward in a confidential pose.  “It could be one.  I mean, I could make it a sort of personal profit center, if I lacked principle.”  He sat back.  “The way Matt does.”

He made me curious.  “What could we do?” I said.

“We could trade editorial coverage for ad space,” he said in a tone I thought Matt might have reserved for a venereal disease.

“Oh,” I said.  I’d heard a lot about this from my father, of course, and I was a little surprised at Grant, I thought everybody did it as a matter of course.  I said, “We wouldn’t want to do that.”

“I should say not,” he said.

“What is a profit center here?” I said.

“Oh, Finder!” he said.

“He mentioned Finder, and so did Nickie,” I said.  “What is it?”

“The data base,” he said.  “It’s a search service for AIDS information.  One hundred and fifty dollars per query.  It’s the profit center.”

“I’ll bet,” I said.

“Actually, Finder finances everything we do.”

“The magazines?”

He nodded.  “And the books, and the radio show.  Only Finder makes real money.  Without it, we’d go broke.”

“Does Matt know that?”

He frowned sadly.  “It’s difficult to say exactly what Matt knows.  It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of knowledge.  What is it, after all?  What do any of us know, for a certainty?”

“Is it one of those things Stan mentioned, that you just don’t tell Matt?”

“It’s more in the nature of the madwoman in the attic.  Matt knows about it, but he won’t discuss it.”

I laughed at this, and Grant smiled, then he said, “They want me to do it.”

“Who?  Do what?”

“Sales,” he said.  “Trade editorial for ads.”

“Oh, don’t do it.  Put your foot down.”

He looked at me, searching for my understanding again, his eyes were big and brown and wet behind the thick lenses of his glasses and rimmed with red.  He said, “I try to be a good editor.  I am a good editor, ordinarily.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“I worked for Little, Brown once.  I edited law textbooks.  Now that was a job.  I had an office with oak bookshelves and a view of the Boston Common.”

“Why did you leave?” I said.

He looked at me sadly, as if he withheld some knowledge that would some day sadden me.  “It was a sudden thing.  I had to leave suddenly.”

“I see.”  I wondered whether Grant had had a cold at Little, Brown.

“Yes.”  He smoked his cigarette.  He looked around him, as if he had actually been in Boston and had to reorient himself now.  “I can edit anything, I’ve always said that.  You don’t have to believe the copy to edit it, and I certainly don’t believe what goes on at Brackett Data, editorially speaking, I mean, but they make it so hard here, they make it so hard.”

“What do they do?”

He frowned.  He talked into the air, as if lecturing an imaginary journalism class.  “There are only two acceptable AIDS victims:  transfusion cases and kids.  Everybody else got it sexing around, so they deserve it.  All right.  That’s a point of view.  This is a democracy, there’s room for all points of view.”  He put his hands on his knees and his face became pained.  He said, “But we get calls from these people, you know?  ACT UP calls here, and who has to deal with them?  Matt?  Patricia Patterson?  No!”  He shook his head.  “Me, Grant Cummings.  I’m the only person in this whole company who’s actually talked to an AIDS patient.  I’m the only person here who understands the functioning of the virus.  Everybody else is too busy.  Everybody else is upholding morality or selling ads.”  He stopped suddenly.  “You’ll find out,” he said, with an undercurrent of resentful anger, “if you stay.”  Then he said, “You will stay, won’t you?”  There was a faint pleading edge to his voice.

“I don’t see why not.”

“You’re different from the others,” he said, relieved.

“What others?”

“The other junior editors they’ve had in here.”

“What were they like?”

“Journalism majors,” he shrugged tiredly.  “All climbing the ladder, all ambition and salt.”

“Salt?” I said.

He looked at me again, as if he were weighing his words.  “There’s no place to go at Brackett Data.  There’s no up from here.”

I thought of the hand on the stairwell wall at The Place.

“You could get my job, of course,” he said, “if you wanted it.  But no one wants it.  This is not the place for a young man on the move.”

“Apparently not.”

“But you’re different,” he said.

“I’m not on the move.”

“Well, you’re writing your novel.”

“Yes.”

“You’re just here to —”

I picked it up from him.  “I’m just here to survive.”

He nodded slowly.  “That’s the reason I’m here,” he said, “if you really want to know.  In fact, I’d say that’s why we’re all here, all of us.”  He seemed pleased by his realization.  “We’re just trying to survive.”

He drew on his cigarette, and then began to cough badly.  I crossed to him and patted him on the back, but it did no good.  Then I remembered his medicine and got it from his desk.  When I returned, Grant was standing by the desk, bent over and coughing.  I gave him the Day Care and steered him back into the orange chair.  He sat down, coughing, but managed to lift the bottle to his lips and drink it.  It worked like honey, he stopped coughing almost immediately.

“That’s a bad cough,” I said.

“Summer colds are the worst,” he said, sitting there with the bottle in one hand and the butt of his cigarette in the other.  He took one last drag on it, and then made a wretched face at it and looked at me and said, “I hate it when I smoke the filter.”

Chapter 6

Nickie directed me to a Chinese place down the road from the little airport, and we split a beer in two glasses while we read the menu.  Her warm scent filled my car and my head.  She was plain today, dressed in a pale pink and white striped blouse and a short black skirt that rose well above her knees as she sat in the car, and very little makeup, but she still looked good.  When she crossed her legs I heard the soft sound of her stockings rubbing against each other, thigh to thigh, and I imagined the warmth, I wanted to feel my hand there.  I glanced at her as I drove and I thought she looked fine, I looked at the line of her breasts, small and delicate looking, and I suddenly wanted to take the rest of the day off with her and take her to some green spring field and take off her clothes beautifully and slowly and fuck her even slower than that.

I downshifted, turning into the parking lot, and said, “I really like the way you smell.”

The restaurant was one of those places in a shopping center, phoney with plastic lanterns, but run by real Chinese who spoke their own language among themselves.  Nickie sat across from me and said, “I’m having lunch special number four, what about you?”  When the door of the restaurant opened, the slightest breeze carried her smell across the table to me.  I didn’t want anything to eat.

She closed her menu and set it on her empty plate.  She lit a cigarette and sipped her beer and looked at me, smiling.  “I’ll have my usual,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Sweet and sour.”

She pointed a finger at me.  “You’re up to something here, and I want to know what it is.”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you doing at Brackett Data really?”

I wondered how she knew I was doing more than making a living.  “Really,” I said, “I’m writing a novel.”

She smiled, satisfied with her acumen.  “I thought you had something cooking.  What’s it about?”

She looked delicious, and I wondered what Wiley Post would do.  “It’s a love story.”

She smiled at me again, she suspected something.  “You’re making this up.”

“It’s a novel,” I said.  “I make it up as I go along.”

She laughed at this, and I liked her laugh, it connected with her deep insides, and I wondered if she laughed when she came.

She said, “Don’t tell Matt you’re writing a book.”

“Why not?”

“It would make him very nervous,” she said, “since the shooting.”

“The shooting?” I said.

“Patricia didn’t tell you about the shooting, did she?”

“The shooting?” I said again.

“One of Matt’s lesser accomplishments,” she said.  “He shot a man last year.”

“How?  I mean, why?”

“The guy came after him,” she sipped her beer.  “Didn’t you notice the gun when you talked to him?”

“The gun?”

“He carries a gun.”  She looked at me, to see how the news affected me.

“Jesus,” I said.

“People threaten him all the time,” she said.  “And one guy came after him in the parking lot at the radio station.”

“He mentioned a radio show,” I said.  “Is he on the radio, too?”

She smiled almost cruelly, cynically, enjoying my astonishment.  “He’s everywhere, baby.”

“Christ,” I said, trying to imagine all that dis-ease on the radio.

She said, “He can’t help you now.  He used to be here, but he left when Matt took over.”

And I saw Jesus leaving the room, I shook my head to clear it.  “Who did he shoot?”

“A black man.”

“That figures.”

“He was the father of this guy the police killed downtown.  The witnesses said it was murder, but they were all black, too.  So Matt talked about blacks and lawlessness on the radio, and this guy came after him.”

“Was he armed?”

“A 9 millimeter.”

“What’s Matt carry?”

“A .38,” she said.

“And he just shot him.”

“Right there in the parking lot at the station.  Two times, in the stomach.”

“Was Matt hit?”

“Flesh wound in the side,” she said.  “Boy, that was a million-dollar wound.  He broadcast the very next day from his hospital bed.  Charged three times the going rate for the air time.”

I stared down at the table. I reached to her pack of cigarettes and lit one, I couldn’t absorb it all — dis-ease, dead Negroes, murdering cops.  I saw Nickie looking at me, she looked wise to something, and I knew she was trying to freak me out.  I decided that I wasn’t going to let her, I would show her I could handle it, and when she saw that I could she would let me fuck her, I thought madly, I lifted my face to hers and blew smoke into the air above us.  She smiled grimly and said, “How did you wind up here, anyway?”

“Grant asked me that too,” I said.  “Why is everyone so curious about how I got this job?”

She lifted her menu and looked around for the waitress.  “Everyone expects you to resign.”

“Why?”

“Why not?  Why would anybody work for a place as weird as Brackett Data?”

“I just want to write.”

“For Brackett Data?”  I could hear the italics.

“My novel,” I said.  “I quit school to write.”

“You’re from Atlanta?”

“DC.”

“Why’d you come here?” she said.  “Why not write at home?”

“I did,” I said.  “My father’s a writer.”

“Really?”

“My father’s Nathaniel Jones,” and I waited for her reaction.

But she shook her head and said, “I’m sorry, should I know who that is?”

I laughed, it was wonderful she’d never heard of him.  “Congratulations,” I said.  “Nathaniel Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1968.  He covered the Vietnam War.”

“Wow,” she said.  “And you’re working for Brackett Data.”

“Don’t tell them,” I said.  “I don’t want it to make a difference.”

“I understand,” she said, but she looked at me differently now.

I drank some more beer.  “So he set me up a little studio off the back of the house.”

“Neat.”

“It was sort of a small version of his own study.”

“Oh, I’ll bet that was no good.”

“It was all right, but it wasn’t real.  Do you know what I mean?”

“What was it like?”

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time taking care of my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“My dad is away a lot.  He’s always been away a lot.”

“So you took care of your mother,” she said.  “How did you do that?”

“Oh,” I lifted my eyes, recalling it, “I never went anywhere when I was a kid.”

“That took care of her?”

“Yes.  If I didn’t go anywhere, she never had to worry about me.”

“I get it.”

“Sure,” I said.  “So there I was, writing at home.  But my mother was always asking how I felt, if everything was all right, whether I wanted to have friends over.  That’s one of the ways I would take care of her — I’d have friends over so she would quit worrying about it.”

“You took care of her by letting her take care of you.”

“When I didn’t need any care.”

She said, “What about your father?”

“Oh, he was in and out on business.  He’s always been in and out on business.”

“He’s off winning Pulitzer Prizes while you take care of his wife.”

“I kept the boyfriends away, didn’t I?”

The waitress brought the meals.  As we began to eat, I said, “You still haven’t told me how you wound up at Brackett Data.”

“I was a temp.  I went to work for an agency right after I moved here, and I came to Brackett Data on an assignment.  They offered me the job.”

“And you took it.”

“Low self-esteem.”

“You’re sharp,” I said.  “I like you.”

“I know,” she said, pleased with herself.  Her hand strayed absently to the top button on her blouse, and I felt strong for her, I wanted her to like me.  “You told me yesterday,” she said.

“I meant it,” I said.  “Do you like me?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“You must like me a little.  You came to lunch with me.”

She said, “You’re pretty sharp yourself.  What year of school were you in when you dropped out?”

“I was a sophomore.  Rising junior, actually.”

She nodded, looking thoughtful.

I said, “Now you know how old I am without asking directly.”

“Do you want to know how old I am?” she said.  “Would you like to see if I still have all my teeth?”

I laughed.

“I’ll be twenty-two in September,” she said.

“I’ll remember.”

She smiled suddenly.  “I know what you’re up to.”

“What am I up to?”

“You’re writing a book all right, but it’s not a love story.  You’re writing an exposé of American small business.”

I laughed again, hard, but I could see the black man bleeding on the asphalt in the parking lot.

“That’s Matt,” she said.  “Keeping the small in small business for twenty years.  That’s what you’re doing here.  Field work.  Research.”

I enjoyed her.  “Found out,” I said.

“I’m sharp.  You said so.”

I leaned across the table and spoke in a low tone.  “Is my secret safe with you?”

I smelled oil of drakar above the sweet and sour, her lips looked so soft, she whispered, “I’m on your side.”

 

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