He wakes at the first hint of light. Someone has placed a set of encyclopedias on his stomach. He could be wrong about this. When he opens the door and struggles to his feet, he realizes it may be an inside job. He feels like he’s about to give birth to two large bricks, or a typewriter. He waddles to the door and up to Nikola’s room to sleep.
Or not to sleep. He lies on his side and shifts around until he’s comfortable, but a few minutes later the bricks congregate against his ribs. So he turns to the other side, shifts again – and again the bricks. He pops an Ibuprofen, to no effect. His stomach begins to produce ungodly sounds, like a hot spring at Yellowstone. He pops two Rolaids, to no effect.
A couple of bleary, blurry hours later, the sun fires a dozen stripes through his Venetian blinds, and he begins to shiver. Not the playful shivers that make your mouth go huh-vuh-vuh. These are rabid creatures, coursing from toe to shoulder in waves of ticcing fiber. He issues commands for this behavior to stop, but the troops are in full rebellion, running back and forth like little hyper insects.
A half hour later, a brief respite allows him a trip to the restroom. The world is terrible, out of focus. He can barely stay standing long enough to finish peeing. Fluids, he thinks. Fluids. He stumbles downstairs to the fridge and finds the last half-carton of orange juice, takes heaping swallows whenever the dreaded shivers leave the field, whenever the bricks force him awake.
Minutes later – or an hour – he has to pee again. This time the standing is more difficult, and he realizes that he may have to throw up. This is not an unwelcome idea. He recalls a case of food poisoning that cleared up directly following a vigorous puke. He assumes the position, embraces the porcelain god, feels the upsurging magma, the ab muscles in rebellion, the throat turned inside out and… nothing. So these are the dry heaves, he thinks. Fucking useless. All the horrible loss of control, all the awful clenching of innards, none of the results.
After a minute – or an hour – he levers himself to his feet, pees some more, and staggers back to bed, where he is immediately beset by the biggest wave of shivering yet. He fears it will never stop, and finds himself emitting full-body groans, just like the ones you hear in movies from desperately ill people. This is not just bad, he thinks. This is bad acting. He knows by now that this is a virus, stomach or intestinal. It is likely the sickest he has ever been.
The shivering stops. The sweating begins. It pours off of him in sheets. Uncomfortable as hell. He grabs a towel from the dresser, strips off and wipes himself down. Three minutes later, he is newly soaked. Fluids. Fluids. He drinks the orange juice dry. Opens the window, lies naked on the bed. The breeze is cool, but has absolutely no effect. He sweats. He makes calculations. He needs to be naked, but he also needs to leave the door open. If he passes out, if this fever turns bad, if Thompson comes home, he needs to be able to see his condition. Call the paramedics. He will not be one of those tenants discovered behind a locked door only after his carcass starts to smell.
A few minutes or hours later, he wakes to the sound of tearing plastic. A man stands at his bedside, opening a small bottle, offering him a cup of liquid. It’s strong, cherry with a touch of licorice. The man speaks the words “saltines” and “orange juice.” Jack moans and shifts his bricks. The man disappears.
When he wakes, the window is dark. He finds saltine crackers on the nightstand and chews three of them down. He opens a carton of orange juice and drinks half of it. It feels like liquid gold. It occurs to him that the sweating has stopped; this thought carries the force of a biblical miracle. He tries to stand. His legs ache terribly, as if he has been running laps up and down the beach. The shivering. He drags himself to the window and closes it, pops an Ibuprofen to some effect, then returns to bed and manages an hour of sleep before baby brick 1 and baby brick 2 wake him up again.
Jack spends the next day almost entirely in bed; he begins to sweat again, but chases it off with the Nyquil. His muscles continue to ache from the previous day’s shivering, so he pops an Ibuprofen. His stomach gurgles; he takes a couple Rolaids. His nightstand is a pharmacy, a squad of medicinal soldiers awaiting their assignments. At noon, he finally has a decent bowel movement, and the bricks begin to fade.
The next morning – is it Wednesday? – he gathers enough energy to shower, and to shave his three-day beard, to dress and to look something like a human being. He spots the cold sores at the corner of his lip – fucking inevitable – and drafts a tube of Blistex for his nightstand. Then he heads downstairs and finds Thompson eating toast.
“Dude! Good to see you up. I was worried about you. Stomach flu?”
“Um… I think. Thanks for the Nyquil and… stuff.”
“Oh, and… was I…?”
“Butt naked! Yes. Can’t blame you. You were burning up, bruddah. Nothing I haven’t seen in a locker room.”
“I… I…” He has talked too much now, and feels winded. “Better go… back to bed.”
“Hey Jack. When you get back up, could you take a look at something?”
“Cool. I’ll leave it on the table. Now go to sleep, buddy.”
Jack turns and begins the Everest-like trek back up the stairs.
When he wakes back up, two hours later, he feels the energy again, and realizes that he needs to get up and about. The bed is turning magnetic, and he needs to work up some circulation. He takes another shower – feeling a little excessive about it – and puts on some jeans and a sweatshirt. He’s about to leave the house when he recalls Thompson’s request, fetches a manila envelope from the kitchen table, then pitches it onto the passenger seat as he gets into his car.
At the coffeehouse, he feels like a Cro-Magnon trying to navigate modern English. But he does manage to obtain a magic Peruvian and a can of mango nectar. Fluids. He uses the nectar to down another Ibuprofen, takes a sip of the Peruvian for a chaser and opens the clasp on the manila envelope. He pulls out a sheaf of papers.
Numbers. More than he’s seen in months. He takes another sip of coffee and smiles.
“It’s a quarterly analysis. They’re way behind on everything. First they had to scour all the books after that SEC fiasco, then they had to re-format the system to fit the new procedures, and then they had to accommodate Thompson’s so-called second honeymoon. Also – and this is my favorite part – it turns out that yours truly was the lynchpin to the whole department, and they just haven’t found a way to make up for my loss.”
Jack punctuates this last point by firing a stone over the water. It spells a perfect low arc, spinning like a flying saucer, touches lightly to the surface and takes ten evenly portioned skips.
“Isn’t it though? Numbers! I am digitally, narcotically high.”
“No! I mean that throw.”
“Oh. Thanks. Not exactly a talent that you can brag about. It gives away the fact that I have way too much time on my hands.”
“But what if you had all that time and you really sucked at skipping stones?”
“The quarterly is so far behind that they gave Thompson absolute discretion to contract out the work. He doesn’t even have to tell them who’s doing it, since the department has to double-check the work anyway.”
“Why does everyone trust that guy?”
“I don’t know, but it’s nice for once to be the beneficiary.”
The beach is veiled in low-lying clouds of gun-metal gray. Every few seconds a random raindrop strikes his jacket. Jack spots another stone and picks it up, rubbing the sand from its surface.
“Oh, um,” says Ben. “Any idea what time it is?”
Jack digs his phone out of his shirt pocket and flips it open.
“Well for heaven’s sake.”
“Apparently, I left this thing off all week.”
He turns it on. A swirl of red smoke gathers and dissipates, revealing the company logo, and then it flashes to his main screen.
“One thirty five.”
“Oh. Thanks. I have an appointment at four. So let me ask this: Any sense that Thompson is using this assignment to buy you off again?”
“I don’t… think so. What with the beach vacation and me screwing his mistress, I think we’re pretty even. And to come up with something this complicated for a buyoff – that would be like one of those wacky JFK theories.”
“Maybe,” says Ben. “But maybe it just inspired him to lean in your direction. And to take a chance by using an illicit source like yourself. No offense.”
“As opposed to a more standard contracting firm.”
“Hmm.” Jack slips the edge of the stone against his index finger, is about to let it fly when the flat space between the breakers closes up. “Well. I also offer a certain insider’s knowledge of the company. And of course, all of these procedures are the ones I was pushing for.”
He stops to look at the rock. It’s a white quartz. A perfectly round, moon-shaped white quartz.
“The night I got sick. Thompson’s wife agreed to let him visit for Christmas, and we went to Capitola to celebrate. The last time I saw him, he was dancing with this blonde, and then when I got home, the blonde was giving him a blow job.”
“Holy shit,” says Ben. “Wow.”
They return to their strolling. Ben seems very intent on analyzing this latest development. Jack wonders if Ben has a barometer.
“This housemate of yours is… complicated.”
“You’re being very generous. But there is a juicy paradox here. For a low-down dawg who cheats on his wife, he can be surprisingly thoughtful. At the awful awful hell-point of my illness, he apparently went out to the store, bought me some orange juice, saltines and Nyquil and delivered it to my bedside. This despite the fact that I was contagious, sweating like a pig and buck naked.”
Ben takes a few steps, shaking his head.
“So I guess you’re right – at least part of this offer is driven by guilt.”
Jack sees a trough smoothing out between the breakers and fires the white quartz. It flies low to the surface, takes a thirty-foot skip over a wave and settles to a stop in a little trail of dimples. Then he has a heart attack.
He freezes, suspecting arrhythmia, but then he remembers the phone tucked away in his shirt pocket. It’s vibrating. He digs it out, flips it open, and realizes they’ve just come astride a gap in the cliffs, which has opened up his reception. The vibrations continue, and the screen totes up the messages: 8, 9, 10…
Ben steps up to investigate. “Is it radioactive? Is it gonna blow?”
“No. But it’s up to sixteen, seventeen… Oh, I guess that’s… Whoops! Eighteen, nineteen…”
“Holy shit. What is it all?”
“I have my suspicions. Tell you what. Why don’t we find a good resting spot, and I will give you a recitation.”
Ben claps his hands together. “Splendid!”
A few minutes later, they arrive at a set of wide steps next to the pier for the Concrete Boat. Ben takes a seat halfway up.
“Oh,” says Jack. “Is this it?”
“I think it’s suitably theatrical.”
Jack stands in the sand before the lowest step and flips open his phone.
“Thank you, thank you.”
“I wasn’t clapping.”
“That’s all right. I’d like to start with a work I have titled ‘Shitload of Text Messages.’ It’s sort of a found poem.”
Jack punches the first message:
“Ah! Audrey: Howz trix, shweet shtuff? Like to take me up on that dinner?”
“Please! Quiet in the hall. Audrey again: Yo, Bubba. Free food & u might get lucky. OK, u WILL get lucky.”
“Silence! Audrey: Tiny red dress, lots of leg, lots of cleavage, no panties.”
“Horny old man. Whoa. Brigit: Hi. Long time no c. Been busy. How u? Audrey: What up, honey? UOK? Brigit: Testing? U there? Audrey: Bebe! WTF! Pay attention to me. Brigit: RU OK? Brigit: Too weird 4U? I guess I understand. Audrey: Jesus Jack! Where the hell RU? Audrey: Well fuck u then.”
“Audrey: I’m sorry. But I’m horny, dammit! Brigit: I thought we could at least be friends. Verizon Wireless: New Tigers Woods Golf, now avail… Whoops. Audrey: Will suck yr cock like sucking ice cream through a straw.”
“Brigit: Bloody hell. I give up. U CA boys are fucked up. Audrey: OMG, RU sick? Now I’m worried. Let me know if u need anything. XXBJ.”
Jack snaps his phone shut, and Ben serves up a proper applause. “Author! Author!”
“Quite the social experiment,” says Jack.
“Yes. All the little self-propelled assumptions. Notice the endings, where Audrey landed back on genuine concern and Brigit opted for dismissal.”
“You really like the idea of me and Audrey, don’t you?”
“I just like the idea of Audrey. And my second piece of advice is: take the job.”
Jack leans against the seawall, careful of creosote. “You think so?”
“You’ve made some remarkable changes, my friend. Now that you’ve pushed yourself against all these lifestyles, I think it would be good for you to have a taste of your old life and see what you think.”
“And what of the fornicating Latino?”
Ben wags a fingers. “Be very careful messing in other people’s marriages. You never know what’s really going on there, and how they’re going to react to outside interference. Besides, you never know. Maybe seeing those kids will set him straight.”
“I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. I’m beginning to think that Thompson is just a wild raging dick. I’m beginning to think that, given the chance, that boy would screw Audrey, would screw Cher the barista, might even screw Gina Scarletti.”
“Anybody would screw Gina Scarletti.”
“Says the horny old man.”
Photo by MJV