"Have a nice divorce," the stranger finished cheerfully, and vanished into
the smoky mob scene that was McGinty's on any ordinary weekday-after-work
Gary was scarcely aware that he'd gone. His whole world had narrowed down, in a kind of horrible tunnel vision, to the paper he held in his hand, and the boisterous background noise of the bar--the hum of conversation, the click of pool balls, the tinkle of glassware, the bouncy country tune currently playing on the juke box, the intermittent surge of sound from the kitchen as one of the staff went through the doors--had become only a blurred roaring in his ears. He felt dizzy and sick, uncertain that his knees would hold him up. Divorce? No--there had to be some kind of mistake! Marcia wouldn't divorce him. She was just mad at him for something he'd forgotten doing, and if he could ever get her to answer the phone they could work it out somehow.
"Gary? Gar? Hey--Gar! Buddy, you okay?"
There was a hand on his arm, and then someone was tugging him around, and he dimly heard Chuck's voice--"Coming through here...make room, will ya?...Marissa, pull out a chair...c'mon, pal, I got you...just let go and sit, you're okay, there's a chair right behind you..."
It was just in time, for Gary's legs suddenly gave way under him and he fell, more than sat, into the plain bentwood chair. He slumped forward, elbows and forearms hitting the table with enough force to make his friends' glasses jump and rattle. Now Marissa's voice joined Chuck's, heavy with concern, and he felt her fingers groping against the sleeve of his trench coat. "Gary? Are you all right? Chuck, what happened?"
"You got me," Chuck admitted. "He was fine a second ago, then this guy with glasses came up to him...what's this?"
"He's got a paper in his hand, it wasn't there before..." Gary could feel the sheets being gently teased from between his slack fingers. He made no effort to retain them. Maybe if they weren't there this whole nightmare would end. Nightmare. That was what it was. In a minute he'd wake up--
"Oh, my, God," said Chuck, every word dragged out and emphasized in that distinctively Jewish style he sometimes used.
"What is it?" cried Marissa frantically. "Chuck, tell me!"
"Divorce papers," said Chuck in a flat voice. "Marcia's calling it quits."
"Oh, no," Marissa protested. "Please tell me you're joking, Chuck."
"This I would never joke about, and I can't believe you'd think I would," Chuck retorted, but not with his usual indignant histrionics. "Damn. I knew it was gonna happen, I just hoped--" His hand settled on Gary's shoulder and he spoke gently, softly. "Gary? C'mon, man, show some life. You can't let this get you down or she's won before you ever step into court. I know it has to hurt, but it's here and it's gotta be faced."
Slowly the roaring in Gary's ears diminished, the black fog that had threatened to engulf him began to withdraw, and he came back to the buzzing good cheer of McGinty's, blinking at the two concerned faces turned toward him. He knew he should say something to reassure them that he had returned to the land of the living, but he couldn't think of a word that seemed adequate to the situation. It suddenly occurred to him that the beer he'd recently drunk didn't seem to be finding its new home particularly congenial. Thank God, Chuck picked up on the look in his eyes immediately. "Uh-oh. 'Scuse us, Marissa, I think Gary's gotta go visit the little stockbrokers' room."
Somewhat later, shaken but, as James Bond used to say, not stirred, Gary made his way back to the table under Chuck's subtle guidance and resettled in his chair. His spasm of nausea had left him weak and lightheaded, but it had also brought the reality of the situation home to him in a way nothing else could have. He'd had some vivid dreams in his time, but none of them had involved kneeling on a cold tile floor and throwing up everything he'd consumed in the last twenty-four (or perhaps that should be thirty-six) hours while his best friend held his head.
"Gary?" Marissa somehow sensed their nearness and reached out to touch him.
"I--I'm..." He hesitated. What could he say--that he was 'all right'? No. He'd never be all right again. Nothing could make this right. How could she have done such a thing? Why had she done it?
"Sit," said Chuck firmly, depositing him back in his chair. "You make sure he stays there, Marissa, I'll be right back." He pushed his way through the mob scene to the bar and leaned way over the countertop to speak to Mike, then returned and sat down. "Gary. Talk to me. You understand what this means, don't you?"
Gary shivered and nodded miserably. "She meant it. She really meant it when she threw my suitcase out the window. I--I don't--I can't--why, Chuck? What did I do?"
Chuck's blue eyes were bright and soft with sadness and anger as he leaned across their small table. "It's not you, Gar. I'm tellin' you, it's nothing you did. This was her idea all the way. You should'a guessed it already, after that trip to the bank the other day." He was trying to be discreet because Marissa was there, something that told Gary just how deeply affected his usually uninhibited friend really was. Gary had stopped by the institution where he and Marcia kept their accounts--the joint household checking that they used for house taxes, food, utilities, and other common expenses, the joint savings, and the two separate personal accounts for individual needs, like clothes, carfares, lunches, hobbies, and so on--and had tapped into the ATM to see what the balance was in the joint checking, wanting to make certain the last batch of payments had cleared. To his bewilderment he'd found the balance standing at barely a hundred dollars. Thinking the machine might have crossed a circuit or something, he'd checked his own account, which proved to be just where it should have been, and then the joint savings, which was likewise decimated. Then he'd taken the slips inside and, after a lengthy run-around, had been routed to an officer who'd had the authority to consult the records of past transactions. She'd handed him a printout detailing a series of withdrawals and checks-to-cash dating back almost a month. None of them were his; he used his personal account for day-to-day stuff and special purchases. The officer had assured him that none of the checks recently written on the account had bounced; whoever had been making the withdrawals had obviously allowed for them in figuring out how much to remove.
"Bank?" echoed Marissa in bewilderment. "What happened at the bank?"
Chuck hesitated a moment, then perhaps decided that it wouldn’t hurt to have a woman's perspective, given that the divorce had been initiated by one. "Marcia cleaned out their joint accounts. Lucky thing Gar had his own or he wouldn't even be able to buy a beer."
Gary shook his head dazedly. "No. It's--it's a mistake, a computer glitch or something. Marcia wouldn't--she--"
"She would, she did, and she is," Chuck interrupted, his voice hard. "Gar, wake up here and smell the coffee! You've got the damn proof of it lying right there on the table in front of you! She's divorcing you, man! She has to've been planning this whole thing for weeks, maybe months. She's figuring to skin you for everything she can get, and if you don't start standin' up for yourself you'll end up living in a box under the Ryan!"
"Chuck!" Marissa rebuked.
Chuck didn't back down an inch. "I call 'em as I see 'em, Marissa." A waitress appeared at his shoulder with a large, steaming china mug, and he nodded thanks and took it from her, setting it in front of Gary's nose. Warm, scented steam rose to envelope his face. "Drink that," Chuck ordered.
"What is it?"
"Tea. Black and strong and as hot as you can stand it. My Great-Aunt Sophie always used to say it was the best thing in the world for nervous shock."
Gary found himself marvelling at how, after all these years, he could still occasionally be surprised by the depths Chuck could achieve--paranoid, sarcastic, cynical, money-hungry, commitment-phobic, appearance-conscious, insecure, lightning-on-the-comeback, me-first-everybody-else-twentieth Chuck, who could sometimes be so incredibly loyal and kind and caring, could show a gentleness and compassion that would match those of anyone else Gary had ever known, his own mother included. Mom, he thought sickly as he sipped tentatively at the fragrant brew. Mom and Dad. I'll have to call them, tell them...I can't put it off any longer.
"Listen," said Chuck quietly, reaching across to lay his fingertips on the back of Gary's wrist and grimace briefly at the chill of the skin beneath his touch. "Gary. Listen to me for once in your life, will ya? I told you Marcia wasn't right for you--didn't I tell you? Didn't I? Long ago, right at the first. If I could see it then, how can you be so surprised now that she's actually done something about it?"
Marissa's head turned from side to side as she followed their exchange, the way a sighted person might follow a tennis ball back and forth with his eyes. "Gary? Is that true?"
He sighed. "Yeah, he did. Who else did you think I got to be my best man?"
"I've known this big lunk since we were six years old," Chuck explained. "I could see Marcia was wrong for him and I tried to tell him, but does he listen to the voice of experience?--no! No, he's 'in love,' and you know what they say about love being blind!"
Gary winced. "Chuck..."
"It's all right," Marissa interrupted. "I don't mind the word, Gary, I thought you knew that by now. And I...I wish it could have worked out better for you, somehow. I know this must hurt terribly."
"It does," said Gary in a tight, strangled voice. God, I'm not going to start tearing up in front of them, am I? Or get sick again? Get a grip, Hobson! Chuck's right about one thing, you have to be a man about this!
But still there was so much he didn't understand. How could Chuck
be so sure it wasn't something he'd been, or done--or failed to be or do?
He had thought, he had been sure, that Marcia had loved him as much as he
had her. And why strip all the money out of the joint accounts?
She didn't need it to live on. She had a good associate's position with
the law firm; when they'd filed their taxes in January she'd reported an
income of $42,637.22. And her trust fund--it hadn't been enough for
her to go to law school on, but this year it had brought in $44,820--what
people in her parents' circles would call "a nice if modest figure;" that
money was hers, and they had always agreed that she should put it in her personal
account, to do with as she pleased; most people in Hickory could have easily
lived for a year or more just on that. Had she thought he wouldn't
be willing to do what was right, to give her her fair share? Didn't
she know him better than that?
He became aware that Chuck was talking again. "--thing we gotta do is find you a good lawyer. My cousin Sid specializes in divorce. We'll fight this, Gar."
"Fight it?" echoed Marissa in surprise. "How?"
"A divorce is a lawsuit, Marissa," Chuck explained patiently. "You can contest it just like you can contest being sued for damages if somebody slips on your front steps. Haven't you ever heard of people saying, 'Oh, my wife won't give me a divorce'? That's what they mean."
"I don't want to fight it," Gary muttered.
Chuck's head swivelled around. "What are you saying?"
"What good would it do me?" he demanded. "Suppose your cousin won for me, what would I get? The right to stay married to somebody who's already proved she has no taste for the relationship. Why should I want that?"
"Maybe to show her she can't have things all her own way just because she comes from Lake Forest and you don't?" Chuck snapped. "Maybe to make sure she doesn't take you right down to your socks? At least you need Sid to make sure you get your share! There's the house--"
"The house is Marcia's, you know that," Gary interrupted wearily. "Her grandparents gave it to her for a wedding present." He heard the startled hiss of Marissa's breath between her teeth. She'd known that Marcia came from money, but she'd probably never realized it was enough money for family members to casually gift their marrying youngsters with real estate in Old Town, which since the beginning of the decade had stabilized into one of Chicago's most affluent neighborhoods. But then, a lot of the Mackenzie and Slater wealth had come out of real estate in the first place. That house had been in Marcia's mother's family since it was built, back in the 1880's, in the great flush of reconstruction after The Fire; the lot it sat on had belonged to them since Chicago was barely a village.
"Well, your investments then," Chuck insisted. "The money market, the IRA. And the stuff in the house--the art, the good silver, the Waterford, the Mercedes, the season opera tickets. And what about the joint credit? Do you want to end up responsible for all the outstanding balance? She's thrown you out of her bed, why do you have to take on her debts?"
"Don't be vulgar, Chuck," Gary rebuked. "And I agreed to support her, didn't I? I paid her way through law school, now what kind of return am I gonna get from that?"
Chuck made a disgusted sound and flung up his hands. "I give up! You are just too noble for your own good, pal."
"No, I'm not," said Gary. "I'm just...tired. I think I want to go back to the hotel now."
"Shouldn't you get something to eat?" Marissa asked. "I'm sure we could find you something kind of bland, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, maybe."
Gary sighed and shook his head, forgetting that she couldn't see it--something he did not infrequently, which was, when he stopped to think about it, a testament to how well she was able to function in a sighted world. "I...I'm not too hungry right now, Marissa. I just...I want to be alone."
"Okay, okay," Chuck acquiesced. "Come on, we'll see you back there. Right, Marissa?"
"Right, Chuck." The woman turned to address Gary directly when he took breath to object. "You want to be alone and we understand that, but we want to make sure you get safely to a place where you can be alone. You're too shocked and distracted to be wandering around the streets of Chicago with night coming on. You wouldn't be paying attention to where you were or what was going on around you. You might get mugged or something."
As if I care, thought Gary, but he knew his friends well enough to know that saying so wouldn't change their minds; it would only make them more determined to shepherd him to safety, and Chuck would end up calling a taxi.
They had no sooner walked into the lobby of Gary's hotel when the desk clerk called out to them. "Mr. Hobson? Mr. Hobson!"
Now what? Gary wondered, changing course. The clerk was looking slightly distressed and holding a plain nine-inch envelope on which Gary's name had been neatly typed. "Mr. Hobson, there was a...a delivery for you earlier today."
"Delivery?" Gary echoed with a frown. He hadn't been expecting anything.
"We put it in the checkroom," the clerk continued, "but--well, I'm afraid it's taking up rather a lot of space, and if you could make some arrangements for it, the management would appreciate that."
"Let's have a look at it," said Chuck, taking charge.
The clerk gestured them through the dropleaf and around to the inner door. He hadn't been kidding about the space issue. More than half the little room was filled with shipping cartons, all of them with UPS labels and barcodes plastered on them. Most were the size Gary had seen Xerox paper delivered to the office in, but there was at least one quite tall, narrow box stamped FRAGILE, and a few smaller, odd-sized ones that were either shallow oblongs or nearly square. He blinked at them in confusion.
"The envelope came separately," the clerk explained. "A lady dropped it off about four-thirty, after the driver had left the cartons. She said it was an invoice."
"Better look at it, buddy," Chuck suggested, clearly having realized that Gary hadn't a clue where all this stuff could have come from.
Gary slit the flap with his thumbnail and pulled out several folded sheets of paper. His stomach lurched again when he saw that the uppermost bore the letterhead of Marcia's legal firm. He flipped quickly to the last, which bore two signatures labelled Witness, plus a memo to the effect that copies had been sent to the senior partner of the firm and to an attorney whose name he didn't recognize. He turned back to the beginning. The sheets comprised a detailed list--books and CD's specified by title, items of clothing, one mountain bicycle, disassembled, one aluminum baseball bat, one ice-hockey stick, one telescope with tripod, a VCR, some tapes, a Bose compact stereo, several pictures in frames, assorted photographs and memorabilia, six barrister bookcases, in sections&...basically the contents of his closet and bureau and the bedroom he had used as a private den/library.
Gary knew he should protest his friend's characterization of Marcia as utterly mercenary, but he didn't have the heart for it. He looked at the cartons again. Was it possible that a man's whole life could be reduced to this? That he had nothing to show for thirty-one years except a bank account, a stock portfolio, and half a twelve-by-fourteen room full of shipping boxes?
"I'll take care of this," Chuck said quickly. "My brother-in-law Mike has a cousin who has a friend who runs a self-storage place. I'll call him as soon as I get home and see if he can get his nephew to come over with his pickup truck and take this stuff over there. It won't be till tomorrow, probably," he added to the clerk, pulling out his wallet. "Twenty cover the space till then?"
"Come on, Gary," said Marissa softly, putting her hand on his arm. "Let's get you up to your room while Chuck haggles."
After she had left, Gary stood for a time without moving, then slowly shrugged out of his trench coat and threw it across the chair, pulled off his tie and shoes, and made his way over to the bed, where he sat down heavily on the edge of the mattress, looking from the list in his hand to the phone on the nightstand. The room was filling with shadows as the swift November dusk gathered over Chicago, but he didn't reach for the light. He didn't need it, and the dimness matched his mood. Slowly he picked up the receiver and tapped out a memorized number on the keypad.
"The number you have dialed has been disconnected. Please check it and try again."
He put the phone down carefully in its cradle. That was that, then. Chuck had been right all along. Marcia must have moved out of the house and stopped the utilities. Probably put a forwarding order on the mail too. He hoped she'd have had the courtesy to make it two, so he'd continue to get his own mail. Not that it mattered much anymore.
He felt numb. He knew it had happened, but he couldn't seem to summon up any real reaction to it. What had gone wrong? He didn't understand. He had been so sure she loved him. He had loved her--
How could love just...stop? It was something he hadn't understood as a kid, and still hadn't been able to comprehend even when he'd gotten to the University of Chicago and begun getting to know people whose parents or other family members were divorced. Love was-- he remembered the title of a favorite book of his mom's, a biographical novel about Abe and Mary Lincoln: Love is Eternal, by Irving Stone.
I don't want this! he thought. Please, I don't--
But he knew that not wanting it wasn't going to make any difference. What he had said to Chuck had been the truth. What good would it do him to contest it? Even if he won, would he want to stay married to Marcia, to live in the same house with her, now that she'd proved she didn't want the same of him? What kind of marriage would that be? The answer was plain: it wouldn't be. Or rather it would be a bitter mockery of everything marriage was supposed to be. Better to just let go now, make a clean break. Like his dad had always said, if you had to cut something, make a quick cut with a sharp knife, it hurt less that way.
Though he didn't see how any of this could possibly hurt less. How did people survive things like this? They must be a lot stronger than I am, he told himself.
Then: Dad. And Mom. I have to--
He picked up the phone again, dialed the 260 area code for northeastern Indiana, then another memorized number.
"Hobson residence, Lois speaking."
"Gary! Hello, honey!"
"Hi, Mom. How are things?"
"Oh, everything is just fine-- You know your dad just got a longevity award from the county? Thirty-six years on the road maintenance crew!"
He managed a half-smile. "That's great, Mom."
He wasn't sure whether she detected something off in the tone of his voice or just happened to look at the clock. "Gary? Isn't this kind of a strange time for you to be calling?"
"I, I don't know, Mom, is it?"
"Well, isn't it--" a moment's hesitation while she squinted at the clock-- "isn't it seven-fifty-two your time? Don't you and Marcia usually eat about now? Oh, I know. She must be out of town on a case and you got lonely."
Lonely, he thought bitterly. "No, Mom, it's not...she's not out of town."
"Gary...something is wrong. I'm your mother, I can tell! Now give!"
He took a deep breath. "Mom, I...I'm afraid I have some, some bad news."
A little gasp came down the line. "Your physical? Is it, is it, oh my God, is it cancer?"
"No! Mom, no, listen to me, my health is fine, I swear." My physical health, at least, he added mentally. "It's, it's, well, you remember Marcia and I had our fourth anniversary last week?"
"Yes, your dad wanted to call and wish you a happy one, but I told him you and Marcia had probably gone out somewhere romantic and wouldn't be at home."
"Well, actually we, we would have, I, I was gonna fix a nice private dinner for us--I went to the Treasure Island up on Lake Shore Drive after work, and I got, I got flowers...Mom...I..." No, no, I can’t say it, I can't--if I say it that will make it real, really real...
"I, I, I'm not...I'm not living at the house any more, Mom."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"It, it, I...when I got home with, with the flowers and, and the special ingredients and all, I, my key, well, she, Marcia, she--she'd changed the locks. And when, when I, I called to her to open the door, she, she..." He squeezed his eyes shut against the memories. "--She threw my suitcase out the upstairs dressing-room window."
"Your suitcase?" Lois sounded as bewildered as her son had been when it happened.
"She, she wants a, a, a divorce, Mom." There, he'd said it. "A guy served the papers on me at McGinty's less than two hours ago. And when I got back to where I'm staying, she'd had all my stuff shipped here--my books and bike and sports stuff and the rest of my clothes and all."
A moment of shocked, unbelieving silence, then: "Oh, son...Gary, I am so, so sorry." Pause, and: "Stay on the line, I'm going to call your dad and have him get on the other phone."
"--You'll do as I say, Mister!" She sounded suddenly angry, whether at him or at Marcia he wasn't quite sure. "Remember, I can always hit star 69 and find out where you're calling from!"
He sighed. "Okay, Mom. I won't hang up."
He heard the click as the phone was put down, the sound of his mother's footsteps on a hard surface--she must have picked up in the kitchen, he'd probably caught her washing the supper dishes--fading into the distance. There was a wait, then his father's voice: "Gar?"
"Is this true what your mom tells me? Marcia's kicked you out?"
"I wish it wasn't, Dad."
"Well, I'll be damned. That two-timing--"
"Bernie!" Lois had picked up again.
"Well, come on, Lo, she is! Anybody who'd do something like this to our boy--"
"Dad. Mom. Please," Gary interrupted. "Let's just--let's don't get into that blame game stuff, okay? It's not gonna do any of us any good."
"Should we come out there?" Bernie asked. "Is there anything we can do to help?"
That was Dad. Helping was always the first thing that came to his mind. Gary found himself smiling and almost really meaning it. "No, Dad, it's...it's okay. Chuck's promised to get me a lawyer and find a place for me to store my stuff till I can get settled."
"God bless him," said Lois. "You are so lucky to have an old friend by your side in that big city."
"So where are you stayin', son?" Bernie asked. "You're still with the brokerage, aren't you?"
He hadn't thought of that. Not that they'd ever been given to calling him at work, but--well, if there was ever some kind of emergency-- "I'm at the Burnham Hotel for now," he said, and gave them the room number. "I don't know if I'll be staying here, though--I guess I need to find an apartment where I'll have more space and be able to cook instead of having to eat out all the time. As for the brokerage...actually, no, I'm not. I--" He hesitated. Should he tell them about the Paper? A split-second of debate and he knew he couldn't. Quite apart from the issue of how to make them believe he hadn't been mentally unhinged by the shock of what Marcia had done, or how to answer all the questions they'd inevitably have about how and why, there was the very real possibility that it wouldn't last--and the story was too complicated for a long-distance call anyway. "--well, let's just say Pritchard and I couldn't get along any more."
Bernie snorted. "I'm not one bit surprised. That job was never right for you, I knew it from the start. Hey, listen, why don't you come back home? With all the education you got, you could name any job you wanted in Hickory. County's lookin' for a new supervisor of public works, I can put your name in--you'd have to send 'em your resumé, 'a course--"
"Dad, please. I appreciate it, I really do, but..."
"Bernie, give the poor boy some room to breathe!" Lois scolded. "He's already had two huge changes in his life, let him adjust before you start talking about a long-distance move!"
"I was just tryin' to help," Bernie defended himself.
"I know you are, Dad. And I, I'm grateful that you, that you'd think of it, but--but I think I, I want to stay in Chicago, for a while anyway." Till I find out if this Paper thing is gonna last...
"You wanna come home for Thanksgiving, then?" Bernie suggested. "We're invited to your Aunt Mabel and Aunt Sally's for dinner, but they'd be glad to set an extra place for you."
Gary smiled faintly at the memory of the two old ladies--his great-aunts, actually--and how much they'd always seemed to enjoy his company. "I...I'm not sure, Dad. I'll have to see what comes up...there'll probably be court stuff, and I should look for a new job..."
"Christmas," said Lois in her firmest no-nonsense, this-is-my-last-word-on-the-subject-and-don't-let-me-hear-any-lip-from-you-young-man voice. "You are not staying all alone in some Chicago apartment for Christmas. We'll have your room ready on the 23rd, and you'll be here to sleep in it."
"She's right," Bernie added. "Hell, all you're gonna find from now till New Year's is temp stuff anyhow. And the courts'll take a break over Christmas, or if they don't they should. Take some time, think things over, figure out what you wanna do, then you come out here for the holiday and we'll all put our heads together and decide which way you should be headin'."
"I--okay. Okay, I'll--I'll have to rent a car, I guess."
"Good," said Lois, "I'm glad that's settled. Are you sure there's nothing we can do?"
"No, Mom," he said softly. "No, it's...this is all mine to take care of now. But thanks. Really."
"Well, if you say so," she said, sounding doubtful, "but remember if you ever need us--or even if you just need to talk--"
"I'll remember, Mom. I promise. Look, it's...I've had a rough day, I'm tired--"
"Sure, we understand," Bernie interrupted. "You call any time, though, you hear?"
"I hear, Dad. 'Bye now."
"You take care of yourself, Gary."
"Do my best, Mom. 'Night."
"Good night, son." "'Bye, kid."
After he'd put the phone down, Gary sat for a while--he wasn't sure how long--in the dark hotel room, and if anyone had asked him what he thought of during that time he couldn't have come up with an answer. At last he stood and headed for the bathroom. A hot shower might help him relax, wash away some of the shock.
The Blackstone Hotel
Five weeks later
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Chuck asked, watching as Gary tucked a last couple of tightly rolled pairs of socks into his suitcase, then tested the retaining straps and closed it on his weekend's worth of clothes and toiletries.
"I promised them, Chuck. I can't not go. If I try they'll both be here in three hours. You know how they are."
"Well, yeah, sure, I know, but--well, what about the Paper?"
"What about it?" Gary retorted, heaving the suitcase off the bed and setting it upright on the carpet. "I don't think the cat can follow me a hundred and fifty miles to Hickory, do you?" But he couldn't help glancing toward the orange feline, which was absorbed in its post-breakfast bath over by the dinette set. The cat for its part, as if it knew somehow that it was being spoken of, paused in its grooming and looked up with its disconcertingly intelligent eyes.
"Aren't you concerned about Chuck getting hold of the Paper if you're not here to take it?" Marissa objected mildly.
Gary made a faint sound of disgust. "I don't care," he said. "Just so he remembers to stop by and feed the damn animal--I may not want it, but I'm not gonna let it starve."
"I could take it to my place," Marissa offered. "You know it gets along just fine with Spike."
"Thanks, Marissa, but I've got a feeling Cat won't stay anywhere it doesn't want to." He pulled his long down jacket out of the closet and checked to make sure his gloves were in the pocket and his muffler tucked up the sleeve; he knew how his mother would fuss if he showed up without them. "Boswell promised to hold my mail at the desk," he continued, "and I cleared out the fridge, so there shouldn't be anything in it that's likely to spoil before I get back. You got the extra key?"
Chuck slapped his coat pocket. "Right here." He stood with a sigh and reached for the suitcase. "Well, if you've made up your mind, let's get you on your way."
The cat watched them leave the room and shut the door behind them. After a moment it turned its head toward the window seat and meowed.
"Take it easy, old friend," said a rough twangy voice of the kind you hear around the Missouri-Illinois-Kentucky junction. "He'll be back."
"Yes, I know you could follow him," the voice agreed with a chuckle. Suddenly there was a man sitting comfortably on the cream Naugahyde cushion, a craggy-faced, lantern-jawed man with shrewd gray eyes above high cheekbones, a tweed 'Enry 'Iggins hat perched on his brow. "But cut him some slack this time, all right? Remember, he's still new to this. And we didn't pick the best time in the world to drop it on him, either."
Lucius Snow smiled briefly. "You are a cynic. You're worse than young Fishman, my friend."
"Yes, yes, I know we're here for him too. But how many times was I wrong in fifty years, eh? You've got a backup plan, as you know I'm well aware. Just slough the load off on your alternate for a few days. Gary needs to be with his family for a while. Everyone has limits, even us. Or rather those of us who are human." He grinned at the cat.
"Rrrrr," the animal responded in a sort of muffled half-growl.
Snow only chuckled again, then rose and crossed the room to the sofa, where the Paper lay in a careless heap as Gary had dumped it that morning. He looked pointedly from a certain headline to the cat and back again--and smiled as the type faded away, shifted, and was replaced by a different and much more innocuous story. "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" he asked.
"Be patient," Snow advised. "Gary's young, you know. Not as young as I was when I began, but he's got a good thirty or forty years ahead of him at least. You'll have plenty of time to break him in and teach him how things work."
The cat lashed its tail expressively, then crouched and leaped up onto the dinette table, sinking back onto its haunches so that it could almost meet Snow's eyes at their own level. "Meeerr-rrr!"
"Of course I'm right." The man gently riffled the pages of the Paper with his thumb. "The Paper is a choice, you know. You don't want to drive him to the point of choosing not to accept it, do you?"
"All right, then. Remember, he has to find his own way of doing the job, just as I did. And it's going to take him a while to settle into it, just as it did me. Go easy on him at first, that's all I'm asking." He sighed. "She wounded him very deeply, old friend. I know it was probably necessary, and it may even have been the best thing for him in the end. And, as young Fishman realized, he needs something to give him direction and keep his mind off his hurt. In time he'll understand that this was what he was always meant to do, what he's been moving towards his entire life. That he isn't who he is because he gets the Paper; he gets the Paper because of who he is. But right now he's still finding his feet, making the transition from what Marcia tried to turn him into, back to what he really is. And he genuinely believed he loved her, thought it was forever. You have to give the scab a little time to develop, and being with his family for a while will help with that."
"Meee-rrow," said the cat in a resigned tone.
"That's better," Snow told it. "Just remember, he's only human."
Snow laughed. "Of course I know cats are a superior intelligence," he said, "especially cats like yourself. All the more reason, then, isn't it?"
"Mrrrrnn," said the cat.
A key rattled in the lock. Snow glanced toward the Paper, which immediately began to fade, its outlines blurring, substance growing transparent. By the time Chuck Fishman slipped in through the door and quickly shut it behind him, the tabloid had disappeared.
Snow moved over to the angle between the dinette table and the divider, where Chuck wouldn't have to pass through him--not that Chuck would be aware of doing so, but it was the kind of courtesy Snow liked to tender ordinary mortals--and watched as the young man hurried over to the sofa, stared in bewilderment at the cushion where the Paper had been only five minutes earlier, and then began systematically searching the apartment, lifting up toss pillows, peering under the quilt on the bed, getting down on his hands and knees to check the floor beneath it, looking in the wastebaskets. He paused, scratching his head in puzzlement. He knew Gary hadn't taken the Paper with him--what good would it do him in Hickory? "I know I saw it," he muttered, and stared suspiciously at the cat, which blinked at him, yawned, and went back to its washing.
"You did," Snow told him, "and you will again, after Gary gets back to curb your misguided impulses. You're not ready to deal with a Paper, even someone else's Paper, all on your own yet. Not that it's a bad thing for you to want money, but you have to want it for the right reasons."
Chuck blinked and shook his head. "Could'a sworn I heard a voice," he muttered. "Guess it's just this old building settling on its foundations or something." He sighed. "Well, maybe Gar did take it with him. But I'll get it tomorrow."
Snow watched him let himself out, carefully locking the door behind him, then faded from view himself. The cat jumped down from the table, trotted across the sitting area to the bed, leaped up on the quilt and began kneading a comfortable spot into existence for itself. It could afford to be patient. Time, after all, was not its master.
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