Bill and I were getting ready to go to lunch when his wife called. We used to get to lunch maybe once or twice a week, usually at the Ling Ling. I think Bill would eat Chinese buffet every day of the week if he didn’t want to get fat or poor. I know I would. I don’t think either of us would be too worried about getting fat if we could still get Chinese buffet now.
We get along pretty well; we always have. I was a temp when they hired Bill as the newest writer in Communications. He was loud and talked a mile a minute, but he was friendly and didn’t act like I was some lower species of life because I wasn’t a permanent employee. When Advanced Applied Sciences finally hired me full-time, it was Bill who lobbied to have me moved over to his office and out of that miserable cubicle I shared with three printers, the fax machine, and two photocopiers. Everyone shared an office, either with someone else or a bunch of office equipment. The price of a rapidly expanding company, Bill used to call it.
Bill brought in a cooler and we’d keep sodas in our office and throw darts at a dartboard Bill hung from one of the reference shelf brackets. Our boss Julie disapprovingly labeled our space “a glorified college dorm room.” We laughed behind her back. I didn’t have an opinion and I don’t think Bill gave a damn; he had a problem with authority and had been nursing a hatred of Julie since she’d been hired. None of that mattered to me. I was just happy, finally, to be a full-time employee with benefits.
My wife Deb and I would get together with Bill and Ann for dinner once in a while. I even went one weekend with Bill and his friends to play paintball. We went to the gun show one weekend and Bill kept telling me I should buy a gun, though I figured Deb wouldn’t be thrilled. I settled for a pellet gun. Bill did his best to hide his disappointment.
We’d been working together for months and I still hadn’t decorated my half of the office. Bill’s martial arts posters and rank certificates threatened to expand to take over all of the available wall space. He liked to “nest,” as he put it, and I’ve never met anyone who decorated his office with more crap. His bookshelves were full of reference books, grammar guides, and several novels he’d written and published himself. He was a freelance writer on his own time and dreamed of getting paid to sit in a Starbucks and write science fiction all day. I told him that as much coffee as he drank now, he’d be dead in two years from heart failure if he spent eight hours a day in a coffee shop. I think he saw it as a great way to go.
I couldn’t argue too much with his dream, though. If it was me, I’d be doing pencils for Marvel or DC, maybe one of the other labels, and I’d be sitting right in that coffee shop with him if I could fit a drawing board in there. Back in the real world, he wrote documentation for the municipal and private water filtration systems AAS built and sold. I illustrated those manuals, turning photographs, computer-aided drafting files, and other people’s half-baked ideas into line art. Neither of us thought of what we did as particularly interesting, but it wasn’t unpleasant and we were paid pretty well. Our supervisor was a little unpleasant — Bill liked to say I had a gift for understatement where the subject of Julie was concerned — but, all in all, we had good lives.
The first time Bill’s wife called, we still had those good lives.
The warble of Bill’s phone, which played electronic music from some video game he loved when he was a kid, caught us just as we were getting ready to leave. Bill scooped it up before the vibrate feature kicked in and started it skittering across his desk. “My wife,” he told me, which I knew well enough by then meant, “I have to take this.” Bill’s desktop was a shrine to two people — his wife and himself, in that order. I’ve never known anybody who kept pictures of himself on his own desk the way Bill did. We used to joke that he was vain.
Outnumbering all the pictures of him at the shooting range, sparring with his teacher Eric, posing in front of Star Wars props at the Museum of Science in Boston, and standing with wax figures of famous people like Donald Trump, were pictures of his wife. There were wedding pictures, pictures from honeymoon resorts, pictures in front of landmarks like the Empire State building, and pictures from half a dozen other vacations. Magnets — those gift shop magnets you get from places like amusement parks and tourist museums, the kind with your name on them — were attached to the metal struts of his shelves and the side of his filing cabinet, repeating the names Ann and Bill for anyone to see.
Of course he was going to take the call. When he wasn’t waiting for her to call, he was sending her text messages. I would see him bent over that phone laboriously tapping away at the keys and chuckle to myself. He is devoted; I’ll give him that.
“Bill Potter,” he said. He paused, and then said, “Hi!” That was my cue. Only his wife got a “hi” that happy from him. I stepped out of the office and went around the corner to the water fountain so he could chat with her in peace.
He found me in the hallway a minute later. “All set,” he said. He was twirling his card key on its lanyard. “Do you want to drive, or shall I?”
Then he exploded, and I realized just how weird the world was. And now I wait every day for the people I know to explode.
I don’t have many friends.