Your Name Here, pt.2
New fiction, free for everyone
Pt.1 of this story was the most viewed post I have had here so far. Hope that means you’re enjoying it, and maybe letting others know this site is here. I’m certainly grateful and delighted you came.
Here’s the rest.
On the joys of working alone, and of not working alone. And the cruelties of both. And Neil Diamond fan clubs, And being young. And getting old. And leaving a mark. And seeing it vanish. And clinging to laughter.
Your Name Here (continued— see pt.1 if you haven’t yet)
Only when they’d crossed Weeping Cherry and he’d keyed open his office door did Lenny realize he had a problem.
“I don’t know where to put you.” He surveyed the room: roll-top desk with the top long since broken off; rolling chair with its strap-on lumbar cushion; dented green file cabinet used mostly, these days, now that invoicing and banking and archives had evaporated into the Cloud, as surface space. Atop the cabinet he kept his kettle, a gray cone Bluetooth speaker, and three framed photos, one of his nephews and a clown on Boblo Island, one of his oldest friend Rae hunched over the bins at Schoolkids in Ann Arbor a long, long time ago, back when they’d both thought they’d get married someday, and one of Lake Huron right at the point that it was also Lake Michigan, with a snowstorm closing in.
“Your Name Here,” Tonio murmured, as though it were a destination he’d been hoping to reach his whole life.
Me, too, Lenny thought. In a second, he would flick on the Bluetooth, cue whatever music he felt like hearing, settle his tricky back into its support pillow, and start—continue—his work day. Drape more words over more might-be objects or places someone hoped other people would love. Or, really, pay for, but also love.
This morning, though, the room felt devoid not just of himself but every idea or conversation he’d ever had here (meaning by phone or Skype, not in person; he could count on three fingers the clients who’d come in person). Not just clean but barely used. Ready for its next tenants.
“Hang on,” he told Tonio, and went next door to borrow a folding chair from Lady Lucy.
Positioning the chair on the other side of his decapitated roll-top didn’t dispel the blankness. But it anchored the room somehow. Moored him once more to the wintry, sunlit morning.
“Your new home away from home,” Lenny said.
“My name there.”
While Tonio settled, Lenny punched up his morning playlist. Blind Joe Death today. 12-strings and a railroad rhythm for riding.
When he had his own computer open and looked up, Tonio said, “John Fahey. Nice.”
“Jesus Christ, how old are you, kid?”
“How have there been enough hours in your life for you to be you yet?”
Even as he asked, Lenny got his answer. He watched it happen, right in front of him. The kid paused to process the question. Actually understand it.
Understanding before grinning. A rare human response.
“Right,” Lenny snapped without meaning to. “So. First up, we’ve got two cozy series needing our attention. Trees and pants. Ready? Let’s—”
“Lenny? Mr. Lenny?”
“Fuck’s sake, kid, do I look like a Mr. to you?”
It would take more than snapping, Lenny realized, to rattle that smile loose.
“Lenny. I think I know. But I like knowing. What’s a cozy?”
Lenny ‘s shoulders relaxed. He felt those railroad guitars kick in underneath the morning and lift it. Off he went. In company, for once.
“You are wise to ask, young intern. You are asking the right person. Not even your aunt, the celebrated editor, understands fully. She recognizes cozy when she sees it. But we name it. And by naming, create it.”
“Even if it’s already written?”
“Often, in this sunlit and latte-scented corner of what’s left of bookworld, our title comes first. But even if it doesn’t, yes. We’re the frame the reader steps into. The blanket under which they settle, and onto which their cat climbs up to knead. Everything else—all the other words—are just the pleasant hours passing.”
Thank you, John Fahey, Lenny thought. Thank you, Tonio, for your ears and interest. Thank you, Jen, for sending me a student.
Thank you, Kelly, for smiling in my direction sometimes. Thank you, lakes, The lakes, for glinting.
Goddamn. Maybe he really was where he belonged.
He held up a hand between himself and Tonio and spread his fingers. “Cozy elements, there are five. Substitutions welcome within reason. But variations are minimal. And rare.” As he ticked off ingredients, he lowered his fingers, pinkie first. “One: small town. Two: cuddly pet, crackpot grandmother, or beloved but not too gentrified local eatery, though for some reason, not all three, unless pet resides at eatery. Diner canary, coffee shop cat, those’ll work with grandma or without. Three: our detective isn’t a detective (though she can once have been), but now runs a business based around pleasing others: bakery, bookstore, dogwalking. Her clients exist only as suspect pool or comic relief. Four: dead body.”
“Not too mangled?”
“Interestingly, wrong. Not too described. Entrails draped and dripping over fences, no, not cozy. But a ring finger with the ring still on it, stuck in the ground and accidentally picked up while our happy avatar gathers mushrooms? Weirdly, yes.”
Tonio absorbed. Nodded.
“Five, and most fancifully of all: a steady flow of fresh and viable potential love interests.”
“I feel!” Tonio said. “I totally get that.”
“Spoken like someone who grew up in a thumb town.”
Glancing around the bare office, the carefully swept floor, the fingerprint-free window, Tonio nodded. “So, cozies are basically your life, Mr. Lenny. Lenny.”
“Minus ring-finger mushrooms and flow of appropriate love interests. Correct. You’re doing it again. That creepy-precocious thing. Let’s work. Our first cozy series subject is…pants. Go!”
“Pants are cozy?”
“They will be five titles from now. Actually, two, I’ve already got three. Also, ‘go’ means titles now, questions later. Go!”
“What do you have? It’ll help me start.”
“For Whom the Bell Bottoms Toll. Distressed. Chinos Too Much.”
Balancing back on the folding chair, Tonio patted his hair-curl.
“Chinos,” Lenny said. “They’re a pant.”
Tonio lowered his chair. “Those are really, really good titles, man.”
“You think I got this job by serendipity?”
Then they were off, riffing, sometimes out loud, sometimes typing fast and then spinning laptops to face each other. Tonio opened a browser, started keying in searches. Personally, Lenny always felt that was cheating, akin to looking up clues in the Sunday crossword. He usually didn’t allow himself Googling until after lunch. Abruptly, he held up a finger, waited for Tonio to freeze.
He felt the smug in his smirk. Couldn’t help it. “She Denim In.”
“Direct sequel to Chinos Too Much. Picks up right after the sweet, uplifting, but open-ended denouement. Is Ms. Pants’ love interest really what she or he seems? See? The series is practically writing itself. This was on spec, did I mention that? We only get paid if we pull it off. But I can feel the weight of your aunt’s money in my bare bank account already.”
Twenty minutes later, Tonio almost kicked over backward, then leapt to his feet as if he’d hooked a fish.
“Okay. Good. But hang on.”
Tonio twitched as though his idea was actually tugging him.
“Slowly,” Lenny said. “Casually. Like you’ve had ideas before, and will have more shortly.” He almost felt bad; he was just torturing the kid, or else—more disturbingly—asserting authority in advance, out of fear of what the kid might deliver.
But Tonio took him at face value. He forced his shoulders down, settled back in his chair. He even crossed his legs, which made Lenny laugh.
“What have you got, kid?”
“Slenderfit Man!” Tonio blurted.
For a split second, Lenny was confused. Then his jaw unhinged and his own shoulders hunched as the punch line rose to meet him. True, the whole Slender Man thing hadn’t really resonated for him, even though it had started right on the other side of the mitten, probably fewer than 500 miles away. And nothing about it was cozy.
But as cozy title?
Getting control of his jaw, Lenny took a long breath. “That’s…” Perfect, he was going to say. But even as his lips shaped the word, he spotted the flaw. Relief flooded him. An embarrassing storm surge of it. “…the right idea,” he finished instead. “But you cheated.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not really slender, is it, with pants? It’s slim. Slim fit.”
Tonio put up a hand as though to argue. Then he nodded. “I feel,” he said quietly. A few seconds later, he added, “I wasn’t cheating. In my head, in the moment, it really was slender fit. I mean, I bet it is, sometimes, but you’re right, it’s more slim.”
The glance at his own pants wasn’t in any way meant to remind Lenny who in this room could wear slender fit.
“It gets in you,” he said, meaning to sound reassuring, or at least wise. “It warps your language. Wedges into conversations and aggravates friends. Occupational hazards.”
Forty minutes later, during a startlingly companionable stretch of silence, Lenny burst out laughing. He typed into his computer, bolded and enlarged the font, then swung the screen around.
For once, the kid didn’t know the word. Lenny watched him mouth it first. Finally, he looked up. “I know that’s funny, and I don’t even understand what it means.”
Lenny’d had his arms folded, his smug explanation set. But even as he launched into it, he recognized the trap he’d fallen into. Oldest one in the series-titling manual. “’Khakistocracy,’” he muttered. “Government by the least qualified or worst.”
“That’s just really clever.”
“Too clever. Goddamn it. If you have to explain it, yada yada. You’re right.”
“I wasn’t trying to be right.”
“You don’t have to try, do you, kid?” Suddenly, Lenny straightened against his lumbar cushion. He controlled himself, but barely. Like he’d had ideas before. Would again. “It’s really spelled without the ‘h’. But not when it’s a title in…the Sisterhood of the Murdering Pants books!”
“Sisterhood of… Like Sisterhood of the Traveling--”
“That’s the series, kid. That’s what the whole thing’s going to be called.”
“That’s nowhere near as clever as Khakistocracy.”
“It’s downright dumb. But I’m telling you right now, it’s the series title.”
For a second, Tonio considered. Then he nodded. “Okay.”
“Good. On that note…lunch! I usually have mine by myself, watching the bay. Ritual. You okay on your own?”
From his backpack, Tony pulled out a dented green metal lunch pail the color of something rescued from a shipwreck and restored, neither too shined up nor too rusty. Not bought on eBay.
“Goddamn,” Lenny said, and stood. “Okay. After lunch, we’ve got to name three new housing developments for Burcher Realty. Then our actual commission from your aunt. The Branch series. Think trees. See you in an hour.”
“Can I ask a question?”
“Are there really enough of these? Cozy series? I mean, for you to make a living titling them?”
“God, no. But there are so many more than you think. Ever watched a Lifetime movie? Hallmark mystery? Here.”
From the stack atop his mostly empty file cabinet, Lenny pulled a McCort-Carroll upcoming releases catalog. One of the last they’d sent before going exclusively digital. So old—almost three years, now—that they were still their own publishing company, or at least owned by a publishing company. There might even still have been a McCort or Carroll involved.
He dropped the catalog on the desk. It made a satisfying thwock. “Check pages…oh, anyway, you’ll see them.”
But Tonio already had the catalog open, was already seeing. His mouth moved as he read, like a kid’s. That’s what he was, Lenny realized. Astonishing pants, perfect hair, best lunchbox in Michigan, and all. Just a kid.
“Murder She Typed…Ziti of Death…Lasagne of Death…Manicotti of Death?” Appalled—offended on behalf of Your Name Here—Tonio looked even younger. “Most of these aren’t even trying.”
“The Lake. Remember?”
“Here’s another whole set. The Cat Finds a Body. The Cat Finds a Gun. Holy God, The Cat Finds Another Body. Seriously? I could do better with a random title generator.”
“There’s nothing random there. It’s the opposite of random.”
“It’s so on the nose.”
“Practically up it. But you still have to know the nose. Have to include the animal. Have it find something dead.”
“So you’d have to give the generator parameters. I guarantee you, we’d get titles.”
“Not good ones. Mostly. Not ones that make people laugh.”
“But those aren’t what get used. You just said.”
Bag lunch in hand, fingers curled around the doorknob, Lenny had to make himself turn around. If he didn’t, he realized, he was going to flee.
“…Right…” he heard himself say. Made himself say. Tonio had returned to flipping pages, shaking his head. Lenny opened the door.
“Mind if I try it?” the kid called.
“At the risk of sounding like a man clinging to an abacus…I’ll trust what’s here.” He touched his temple somewhere around his ear. “Right tool for the job.”
“Which, really, is making people like my aunt laugh?”
This time, Lenny’s voice came out waspish. “Kid. Any Random Generator you come up with is yours, you hear? Your Name Here declines the offer. Set that overactive, aggravating brain of yours to Peaceful Housing Development.”
“Are these developments we’re naming peaceful?”
“You think that matters? Have I taught you nothing?”
He’d made the street, and the door had closed behind him, before he glanced back. He saw Tonio’s final “Feel” of the morning more than he heard it.
The day hadn’t warmed and the wind hadn’t lessened, but Lenny took his lunch to the waterfront anyway. He was the only one on the benches. It still surprised him, sometimes, how much he mostly liked his life. His business that had somehow survived. His marriage that somehow hadn’t. Branches of newly bare maples and oaks rattled around him like hangers in an empty closet. The lake wore yet another of its lake-specific looks, at once clear and opaque, plastic draped over itself. No sailboats, not in this wind. Witch of November wind. Only a couple freighters. The automated lighthouse on the point blinked periodically. Nothing talking to nothing, Lenny thought. Thumb town calling deep space…Come in, deep space…over…
Apropos of nothing, he slapped what was left of his salami sandwich against his thigh. It had taken him all this time, months, but he finally had an idea for a going away present for Kelly. How had he not thought of this before? It was so easy, sitting right there for him. He’d even get them made. Wrap blank journals in mock covers.
Her very own series. Barista, survivor, reservation orphan, cheerer of aging, solitary divorcees. Toss in a pleasantly mangled corpse, watch her go.
Making a Kelling. Kell or Be Kelled. The Book of Kell.
He was dreaming cover images—the lighthouse, the lake in the Grindstone’s bay window—as he headed back to work. When he opened his office door. Tonio slammed down his computer lid too fast, as though he’d been looking at porn. But he didn’t blush. And what he said was, “Neil Diamond.”
It took Lenny a surprisingly pleasant few seconds to file the Kelly covers on a back shelf in his brain, settle, and raise an eyebrow.
“Gordon Lightfoot, no. I get it. Not cozy. But Neil Diamond.”
“What, as a series? As the detective?”
“No, like…fans. Like a Neil Diamond fan club.”
“Whose members are also amateur detectives?”
“It’s not more ridiculous than librarians. Or knitters.”
“It is not.” Moving around his desk, Lenny shed his coat and binned his paper bag. To his surprise, he seemed to like coming back to someone else in his office. He sat down, shaking his head. “He’s too hairy.”
“He’s…okay, maybe, but he’s not in it. It’s his fan club. Also, that can’t be a reason something’s not cozy.”
“It can if it’s chest hair. It could get in the tea.”
“I’ve already mapped out the whole thing.”
Whatever he’d mapped, he’d done it by hand. On flash cards. That he’d apparently brought this morning, just in case.
“You’re a little scary,” Lenny murmured.
“It’s like Neil Diamond was setting up a cozy series his whole career instead of writing songs. You’ll see. Now, these first three I’m going to show you, these aren’t titles. They’re main characters. Lifelong friends, united by their sometimes ironic but real love for Neil. Mr. Lenny…Lenny. Meet…the Diamond Club.”
Son of a bitch, Lenny thought.
Tonio held up the cards.
Sweet Caroline. Cracklin’ Rosie. Holly Holy.
“I was going to try out my new random generator—”
“Your what, now?”
“—but look. Wait. You can’t copyright titles. Right?”
Hands gripping the corner of the desk, Lenny nodded.
“So. The Diamond Club—Caroline, Rosie, and Holly—Book One.” Tonio turned over his last card. This one he couldn’t resist speaking aloud. “Hot August Night.”
A shudder whipped through Lenny, so fierce he found himself checking his sleeves for whitecaps. But again, afterward, came relief. Tonio didn’t quite have this last part right. Wordlessly, Lenny took the card. The kid’s flop curl had wilted some, sliding artfully down over one wide brown eye.
Grabbing a pen from the cup next to his laptop, Lenny scribbled. Then he turned the card around and slid it back.
“For Death,” Tonio read.
“Now it’s cozy.”
“Hot August Night (For Death). I like the parenthesis.”
“They give it that split-second pause. See?”
“I feel. Are we allowed to use parenthesis?”
“For the Diamond Club series. If we do it every time. It’s the Diamond Club thing. Oh my God.” Grabbing the card back, he flipped it over and scribbled some more. Tonio, bless him, couldn’t wait; he came around the desk to look over Lenny’s shoulder.
“Forever (And Ever) in Blue Jeans. ‘ Oh, ‘cause they find the corpse dressed that way!” Tonio said.
“Yep. See? Plot’s built in.”
Lenny kept writing. Tonio kept reading what he wrote aloud.
“September Mo(u)rn. Is that legal? How do you even pronounce that?”
“Um. The way it’s pronounced?”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“I’m having fun. I’m having a lot of fun.” He leaned back, let Tonio see the fourth title.
Tonio held up his hands. “I yield. Uncle. You’ve made your point.”
Returning to his seat, the kid popped open his computer. Lenny got a reassuring glimpse of the Spotify playlist he’d called up there. Maybe he didn’t actually know all these songs yet, or hadn’t when he’d somehow gotten this idea.
“Jonathan (Death)ington Seagull,” Tonio murmured.
“The word you’re looking for is ‘genius’,” said Lenny.
“That’s the title that gets this series sold. I will bet you money someone buys this series.”
“Are you making fun of me? I actually can’t tell.”
Good, Lenny thought. Because I actually don’t know. “Let’s name some housing communities.”
They’d been doing that for twenty minutes, lazily listing tree and lake and Upper Peninsula stone-related words in columns and occasionally batting them to each other, when Tonio jerked in his chair. He looked around, patted his jacket pocket, spotted the notecard in the middle of the desk and grabbed it.
Instead of writing, though, he just blurted it out. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
“I told you, kid. Same problem as Hot August Night. You have to—”
“Parenthesis...” With visible effort, Tonio drew out the moment. Made Lenny wait. “Jews Bring Stones. Close parenthesis.”
Lenny started to answer. That is, he made a sound in his throat. Some of the sound was laughter. Finally, watching the one puppy eye not obscured by hair-curl, Lenny said, “How is that even… No, nope, that’s not question one. Question one: Are you Jewish?”
“No. Well. Like, one-eighth. One grandmother. But—”
“But that’s true, isn’t it? You somehow know that’s true? Jews bring stones? To funerals?”
“Why do you know this? How do you fucking…” But by then laughter had him. It shook him in his chair. When it was finished, he slumped, gesturing at the pad of paper in front of Tonio.
“Finish your subdivisions.”
Even to Lenny, it sounded like Eat your peas. Or, Do your homework.
It definitely sounded that way to Tonio. Nodding as though he’d actually been reprimanded, the kid bent back to work. Forty-five minutes later, they had a satisfactory list of ten development names Lenny could imagine clearly enough on a fake-rock sign to be worth submitting. A couple even sounded like places worth living. Michigan-specific, lake-evocative.
Greenstone Point. Where Thumb Towners go to watch gales roll in.
“Now can we work on the Branches series?” Tonio asked, standing and stretching only because Lenny ordered him to. He’d also filled the kettle, again on Lenny’s orders, less because Lenny needed an afternoon cup than because he hadn’t seen the kid drink a drop of liquid since The Grindstone.
“Just Branch. There’s only one.”
“For now.” Tonio grinned.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t let Diamonds go to your head.”
Hoisting himself from his chair, Lenny glanced toward Weeping Cherry, the coffee shop, the lake. Already, at barely 2:00, the afternoon had dimmed along the horizon line like a tent wall sagging.
“Tell you what,” he murmured. “Let’s finish our day with Branch. Let’s do Drumming Hour now. It sucks, it’s boring, it’s how we stay alive. Then we can reward ourselves with a little more fun. Okay?”
He wasn’t really asking, and he really did have a list of tasks he’d much rather dump on Tonio than do himself. E-mails to answer, the weekly whole-thumb City Hall scans of public applications for new building permits or businesses. Given the kid’s formidable instincts, Lenny thought he might even let him handle checking for recent projects filed with or approved by the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office. Collecting names of producers, people to target. Later in the week, he wanted the kid to design a new Your Name Here one-sheet and flyer. Lenny’s was ten years old and looked it.
But before he could suggest any of those things, Tonio said, “Lenny? Can I…just today, I promise, I know there’s work to be done. I am ready to stuff envelopes, organize your Google drive, go get you more coffee, anything.”
Lenny waited. Nothing about this kid implied laziness, and it certainly didn’t imply raid your files, take you pants shopping, move in on your inappropriate and unacknowledged crush.
So why had Lenny’s fists curled?
“Just today…I want to try something. I have an idea.”
“No ideas allowed during Drumming Hour,” Lenny muttered.
“It’s an idea for Drumming.”
“Okay. But listen, Tonio. Drumming Hour is about staying alive. It’s not a game.”
“This is that.” Tonio dropped his eyes, brought them back up. Like a cat acknowledging dominance, or pretending to. Or a bright kid on his first day in the office.
“If it works,” Tonio added. “It probably won’t. At the end of the hour, I’ll let you know if it does.”
“Today only. Okay?”
For the next sixty minutes, while Tonio stared into his laptop screen and tapped and typed and stared and tapped, Lenny tried Drumming as usual: trolling through databases alone as he did everyday, in just this light, in this room, with the aftertaste of his lunchtime cheese curds fading on his tongue and Kelly’s distracted, not-actually-for-him smile at the edge of his vision. Today, even in his head, she kept mouthing, Great socks.
He couldn’t get the words right on any of his query e-mails. Civil applications scrolled before him, cryptic and unreadable as wavelets lapping at the lakeshore. Every few seconds, of their own volition, his eyes flicked toward Tonio. Not once did the kid raise his gaze from his project or swipe at his curtain of curl or shift in his seat in his ridiculous, perfect thrift-store pants.
The loon-call alarm Lenny had set on his own computer erupted. It made him laugh, same as every day. He let the loop play twice before shutting it off. One more Drumming Hour down. Not a productive one. Maybe he’d have to hire an intern or something.
For the first time all day, his smile was entirely for himself, and pretty close to his usual one at Drumming’s end, until he saw the look on Tonio’s face.
Tonio was grinning again. He didn’t look down. Lenny didn’t either; that seemed important, somehow. He felt stupidly vindicated when Tonio spoke first.
“Ready to do the Branch series, Lenny?”
The next words you say... Lenny thought. He almost managed to laugh at himself. Probably time you got out more, bub. Maybe he’d actually do that. Maybe even this weekend. Check a coffee shop in some other thumb town.
He asked slowly, stretching ostentatiously as he did. “You going to show me what you spent the last hour of company time doing?”
“Oh,” said Tonio. “You mean this?” He swung his laptop around.
Lenny glanced at the short list of words without really reading them. Genuine annoyance cracked through him. “I told you we weren’t working on that now. I meant it.”
“I didn’t,” Tonio said, and tapped the top of his computer. “It did.”
After a second, Lenny shook his head. “I saw you typing. I was sitting right here.”
Low Hanging Branch.
“I was giving it parameters. Writing simple code, if/then stuff. I did it a couple different ways. I linked it to an idiom dictionary, had it do searches. I had it put the key word first, the key word after. I gave it parts-of-speech restrictions.”
“I even tried some rhythm things. Three-beat, four-beat. Three words or four. Look, it even did that thing you showed me. It practically lays out Branch’s whole life just with the titles.”
“Branching Out,” Lenny said, having to push his voice through his teeth.
“The one where he has to leave the nursery.”
“Because he’s a suspect. So he’s also on the outs.”
The spin-off series, Lenny thought, trembling. The one where his daughter sets up her own business.
“Roots and Branches. The one where he meets his new partner.”
“-s,” Lenny whispered. Hissed. “Partners. The Root twins. He marries one. You’re telling me all you did with your new program was type in ‘branch’?”
“After coding. Setting parameters.” Surprisingly, Tonio blushed. “I also erased the dumb responses. It gave lots of those. But we do, too. And it did this in a split second. It will give you as many as you want. As many as there are in the language. Thousands in a click. And before you say it…it will even make people like Aunt Jen laugh. I’ve been saving this one. At the end, just a few minutes ago, I had it try compounds.” Tonio reached around to the keyboard, scrolled down. To Lenny, seeing the blank screen vanish, the page break rushing upward, was like watching floodwater rising.
“Obviously, it just did the name. The suggested plot summary’s mine.”
NudiBranch. The one with the hippie commune murder.
“Do you think Jen would be interested in a program like this?” Tonio had turned his laptop back toward himself. “You said you didn’t want it, right?”
Trembling, Lenny almost told him to code in some parameters and ask his generator. Just to confirm.
“Or movie studios? Would you set something like this up as, like, a pay website, or software to sell? Do you mind if I try one or the other? On my own time, obviously, not yours. Just as an experiment. See if I can draw interest, maybe—”
“Excuse me,” Lenny said, shoved his chair back, and flung himself out the front door.
Fumbling in his pocket while the wind buffeted him, Lenny stumbled away from the lake. In the alley on the other side of the dry cleaners, he wrestled his phone free, punched up his contacts, and stabbed Jen’s number.
“What did you do?” he croaked when she answered.
“Len? It’s windy, I can hardly hear—”
“Why would you do this? Why did you send that to me?” In his head, as the phone had dialed, he’d imagined this conversation as funny. He’s been here one day, Jen, and her laughing, ha-ha, welcome to the 21st Century Workforce, Lenny.
She should have been laughing. Or else scolding, snapping that she was busy, did he have her titles, she was in a meeting.
Instead, she said, “I’m so sorry, Lenny. I really am. His parents wanted him to come here. They wanted me to bring him here. I panicked. It was you or me. I’m so sorry.”
“He’s a monster.”
“He’s a fucking genius.”
“He’s a kid.”
“He’s been here six hours—”
“I’m so, so sorry. Len. I mean it.” She hung up.
At the mouth of the alley, he considered turning left, heading straight up the hill to his little house. Yard full of dead leaves he should have raked a thousand times and his fat tabby on the sill and the lakes in his window. His tiny, leaf-blown, lonely, lovely life. The lake, when he glanced that way, looked utterly flat, completely barren. No container ships, no sky, just a long line of deeper gray against the gray above and around it.
“Surprisingly fun sometimes, huh?” Lenny said a few minutes later, when he’d convinced himself to go back. “This working thing? Can occasionally make you feel like it matters whether you…” With a shrug, Lenny shut down his own computer, stuffed his pen and pads in his desk. “Come on, kid. Grindstone closes at 4 in the winter. I need one to go.”
“Lenny?” Tonio packed his own stuff, shouldered his backpack. “Thank you for this opportunity. I’m learning so much.”
“Me, too, kid.”
He held the door for Tonio, started to follow the kid out, but held a moment, staring at his room. Junk the Chemex, throw the speaker and photographs in a duffle, wipe everything down. Twenty minutes, and there wouldn’t even be residue from the decades he’d spent here. Just the bare space, ready for its next lucky tenant.
Your name here.
Nothing to cry about. Hardly even anything to remember.
His smile caught him by surprise, flared on his face. He caught Tonio’s eye. The kid was so sharp. He went still instantly, stopped twitching around. Waited.
“I Was, I Said,” said Lenny, and switched off the lights.