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Monday, October 26 - Carl

The morning had begun oddly, with his neighbor’s old tom dropping a mangled chipmunk on the patio pavers. From the bathroom window, Carl had watched the cat carry its kill across the yard and hop up onto the picnic table, where it looked as if he was going to deposit it right there, among the leaves and acorns and small pots of dried, abandoned plants. But he hopped down onto the bench on the other side, then to the ground and let it fall on the pavers, staring at it for a moment, as if to satisfy himself that it was thoroughly dead, before sauntering off over the yard.
     Then, stepping out the front door onto the stoop, Carl encountered a throng of blackbirds pecking at his yard, a sea of them stretching from his driveway to the neighbor’s hedge. They took flight when the door slammed shut behind him, a great black cloud rising in a drum of wings.
     On his way to the shop, Carl turned his pickup into the McDonald’s drive-thru and ordered an Egg McMuffin and a large coffee. At the window a yawning, bleary-eyed teenager wearing a headset and a stud in her tongue took his money and handed him a white paper bag, which he placed on the passenger seat beside his morning paper and an oily pair of old work gloves. He drove past a row of weary front lawns – vanquished by the season and the wayward tramp of a thousand adolescent feet – and rustic porches sporting orange and black decorations, pumpkins and Indian corn. Soon would come the bedsheet ghosts and dangling skeletons. The town was surrounded by farmland, and behind the houses stretched acres of fields, mostly shorn to stubbles now. The combines were gobbling the last of the autumn corn.
      He turned into the drive and stopped the pickup before the gate in the chain link fence that surrounded the lot. The October winds had built a fringe of refuse – soda cans, candy wrappers, beer bottles, paper bags – around the base of the fence, and he kicked a Coke can away from the gate as he withdrew the keys from his pocket. He wiggled the key into the padlock and wrestled it back and forth, wondering if this might be the day it snapped off in the lock. He parked at the side of the building to leave room for the customers’ cars in front and crossed the lot to the mournful crunch of gravel beneath his work boots.

He unlocked the office door and flicked on the lights, triggering a fluorescent hum that would soon merge with the cinderblock walls and gray linoleum and become one with the general dreariness of the place. Dropping the McDonald’s bag and his morning paper on the desk behind the counter, he passed through the office to the garage where he flicked on another set of fluorescents that illuminated Freddy’s clutter of tools, parts and greasy rags. The Camaro transmission Freddy had left on the floor jumped up at his feet, and he cursed out loud as he half-stumbled half- skipped over it on his way to the bay doors. He pressed the button on the wall, and the doors rattled up, flooding the garage with the light of day.
     He walked back to the office, sat in the swivel chair behind the desk and pulled the Egg McMuffin and coffee from the bag. He unfolded his newspaper, spread it open on the desk and bit into the McMuffin. How long since he’d last tasted a home-cooked meal? He couldn’t pinpoint exactly when his marriage had descended to this level, it had happened so gradually, like muddy water settling to silt. He recalled coming home a few months earlier to the welcome of a note on the kitchen counter: Gone to Mom and Dad’s. That hadn’t been the first time he’d been greeted by a note, but it had been the first time she hadn’t left something for him to eat, a tuna casserole or a couple pieces of fried chicken. Since then they’d become like roommates who worked different schedules. Except Millie didn’t work. He’d find himself most evenings in front of the TV with a pizza or Chinese takeout watching some Fox News bimbo recite the days’ catastrophes.
     He awoke once in the middle of the night and felt around on the bed for the lump of her body only to remember that she’d spent the night at her parents’. That night he’d dragged himself out of bed and into the bathroom to stand over the toilet listening to the drone of his urine against the porcelain, drumming out an insistent refrain: this was where he was, and it wasn’t going to get any better.
     He’d had his chances. Coming out of the Army, he’d applied for the FBI, had passed the civil service test and the interview in St. Louis, but they would have had to move, most likely to D.C., and Millie wasn’t having it. Neither were her parents. Instead the old man had bought the garage and said, “This is for you guys, a wedding present.” But it wasn’t really; it was still in the old man’s name. That was their hold on him.

He popped the lid on his coffee and chucked it into the waste basket. He hated drinking through those punch-holes, always ended up dribbling the stuff onto his shirt. He took a sip of coffee then pulled a package of Marlboros from his breast pocket, tapped a cigarette loose and plucked it out with his lips. He tossed the pack on the desk and glanced up at the clock on the wall. Where the hell was Freddy?
     The Ridgeland Morning News recorded another predictable yesterday, a headline on the failing bearing factory – finally closing its doors after years of decline – and a spate of burglaries over in Stonecastle. There was a side article, a single column, about the Ridgeland High majorettes competing in some twirling pageant and the usual drivel about the area sports teams; Stonecastle Bearcats heading to the state championship. Whoopty-do.
      There was a sound at the door he thought might be Freddy, but when he looked up a tall man in a long, suede jacket was standing on the concrete floor glancing around. He didn’t come directly to the counter the way they usually did, but hung back, as if he were casing out the place. He was an out-of-towner, you could tell that right away. He wore a black T-shirt under the suede jacket, except it wasn’t really a T-shirt, because it had long sleeves, the ends protruding in bands of black beneath the jacket cuffs.
      “Can you do a wheel alignment?”
      Carl took another sip of coffee and lifted his cigarette from the ashtray. One thing he’d learned over the years: don’t let anybody rush you. “What you got?”
     “Mercedes. S65 AMG."
     “S65? We don’t see many of those.”
     “I bet not,” the man said, offering a half-smirk of a smile, just a thin crack opening slowly in his face, like drying mud.
     Carl looked down at his schedule, tapping his pen on the counter top. “Can’t get to it for a while. Got three cars in front of you.”
     “How long’s a while?”
     “Two, three hours.”
     “Is there someplace nearby I can get a bite to eat?”
     No way this man was from around here. Aside from the car and the clothes, there was a way of standing, talking, and . . . the eyes. The eyes of Colton County men beyond a certain age had a glassy dullness to them, but these were alert, like an animal’s. He’d seen eyes like that in Afghanistan. “There’s Barney’s. About three blocks down the road.” He threw his hand in the general direction of the place.
      “You can leave it, or you can bring it back,” Carl said. “It’s up to you.”
      The man pursed his lips, glancing up at the clock, then tossed Carl the keys. “I need to stretch my legs.”
      “You got a cell phone? A number where we can reach you?”
     The man gave him a number, and he jotted it on the service form.
     Through the window, Carl watched the man cross the lot to his car, noting the incongruity of his shoes on the gravel, loafers that looked like alligator or some such exotic leather crunching against coarse gray stones. He opened the trunk of the Mercedes and withdrew a black leather bag with a long strap, which he looped over his shoulder. The car had California plates.
     Something about that picture struck him – besides the alligator loafers – something about the man removing the bag from the trunk. Carl stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. What was it about that picture that bothered him?

Freddy came walking sideways through the lot admiring the Mercedes, his hands jammed into his jacket pockets, his cheek distended by a plug of tobacco. He pushed through the door and asked who the pussy magnet belonged to.
      “Just some guy,” Carl said. “Needs a wheel alignment.”
      “Ain’t never done an S65 AMG,” he said.
      “You ain’t ever seen an S65 AMG.”
     “Car like that’d solve your woman problems.” He shot a stream of tobacco juice into the metal waste basket in the corner. “They drop their panties just to feel that soft leather on their bare asses.”
     He had told Freddy maybe a hundred times not to spit into the waste can, each time silently swearing to smack him in the face the next time he did it, but Carl only frowned and stabbed a cigarette in his mouth. Freddy had been two years ahead of him in high school – a little weasel of kid even then – and Carl suspected he resented working for someone he used to think he could push around. He’d tried it once in the locker room after football practice and Carl had bloodied his nose. Freddy was the kind of kid who thought it funny to slip red hot analgesic balm into a teammate’s underwear while he was in the shower. But he was a good mechanic, probably the best in town.
      He turned the page in his paper and saw that his father-in-law had been given another award, this from the Rotary Club for meritorious service, whatever that meant. There was a picture of him accepting a plaque, smiling his big shyster face at the camera, his suit jacket unbuttoned to show a round belly hanging over his belt buckle. Charles ‘Chuck’ Chisholm of Chisholm Ford accepts the annual award from Rotary President Burl Carver. What a crock. They’d pin a ribbon on Al Capone if he donated enough money. Carl had been a member once. Had met for breakfast every morning at the club and sat around the table with all the other titans of commerce in town, drinking coffee and talking about how they had to keep the liberals out of government.
     Old Chisholm was there every morning, always the first in and last out, which was easy enough because he had a whole battalion of underpaid salesmen patrolling the showroom and the used car lot where you could pick up a broken-down clunker for 20% over book. Old Ben Grimes had bought a ’99 Volvo from him once, and the left front strut snapped a month later on the interstate and nearly killed him. When Carl had mentioned it to Millie, she’d said, “Well, you can’t expect him to know everything about every car he sells. He’s not clairvoyant.”
      Chisholm had held his own through the recession, although ’09 had been touch and go. The business probably would have gone under had not his brother, Herbert, been president of Ridgeland Bank and Trust. There were about five families that ran the town, and the Chisholms were one of them. Their father had been the most prosperous farmer in the county, owning close to a thousand acres. Millie’s parents still lived on the family homestead, although they’d long since sold half the land to developers and leased out the rest to neighbors. Carl doubted if old ‘Chuck’ had ever planted his fat butt on a tractor seat.

Freddy came in from the garage and dropped the Mercedes ticket on the counter. He stood wiping his hands on a rag while Carl copied the work order into the computer.
     "You test drove it?”
     "Yep. Almost didn’t come back. Drives like a dream.”
     “What about that Camaro?”
      He stuffed the rag in his rear pocket and shifted his wad of tobacco with his tongue. “They sent the wrong clutch plate.”
     “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
     "I just did.”
     "Jesus.” He swiveled in his chair and lifted the phone.
     "I’ll start on that Blazer. With luck, I can finish it by closing.”
      Carl called the parts house and argued with some high school dropout for at least five minutes about the clutch plate until he finally got Gil, the manager, on the line and straightened it out. They’d have the right plate by noon tomorrow. Then he called the number the out-of-towner had given him and got his voice mail. He left a message that his car was ready and went back to tallying up invoices. At noon the man still hadn’t shown up for the Mercedes, which kind of surprised Carl, because people passing through were usually in a hurry to get back on the road. He finished his paper work and did a walk through the garage where he found the Blazer up on the lift and Freddy on a chair eating a Twinkie, his lunch pail open between his feet. Freddy liked Twinkies. When he wasn’t chewing tobacco, he seemed to always be eating one. The combination disgusted Carl. The Camaro transmission was still on the floor, and Carl had to step over it to get a look at the Blazer.
      “Freddy put this thing up on the bench. Somebody’s going to trip over it.”
      “That somebody could only be you. I know it’s there.”
      “Still, it don’t look good. Parts laying around on the floor like that.”
      At one o’clock he walked down to Barney’s for lunch. Black and yellow crepe paper was beginning to appear here and there on the porches, spiraling up pillars and streaming from the eaves, holiday-minded homeowners with nothing better to do than worry about not being the last to get their houses partied-up. A combine rumbled in the distance.
     Carl slid onto the stool next to Bart Cummins, who glanced at him and picked his cop’s hat off Carl’s share of the Formica counter and set it on the empty stool on his other side. Bertie was behind the counter, her butt pressed against the stainless steel cooler, tallying somebody’s bill on her order pad.
Carl ordered a BLT and a Coke and asked Bertie if a tall man in a suede jacket had come in that morning.
     She stuck her pencil behind her ear. “Don’t know. I’ll ask Helen. She had the booths.”
     Bart shifted his head enough to eye him over a spoonful of chili. “Somebody owe you money?”
     Bart had grown up only a few blocks from Carl, and as kids they’d been best friends, but he’d grown to believe that friendship in Ridgeland was more a matter of convenience – or coincidence – than preference. If Bart had grown up at the other end of town, his best friend would have been Kevin Fallon or Larry Coates. In any case, he and Bart didn’t hang around together much anymore, other than meet up from time to time for a beer at Shockey’s. In fact, in his more cynical moments, Carl sometimes wondered if Bart had been seeing Millie. He’d had his eye on her when Carl had come home from the Army, but Carl had started dating her first. He didn’t think she was sleeping around, but she might be putting out feelers. He waited for the day when someone, Coates or Freddy or just some dumb hick in a bar would pull him aside and whisper she’d been seen with some guy, at a roadhouse or restaurant or sneaking into a motel. It was bound to happen. Only a matter of when.
     “Naw, just wondering about a guy who left his car with us.”
     After awhile Helen came around the counter. “You askin’ about some guy who came in here this morning?”
     Carl swiveled on his stool to face her. “Yeah. Man in a suede jacket. Tall, thin, out-of-towner.”
      “I seen him. Thought he was you for a second, plopped there in the booth like he owned the place.”
     “Yeah, he kinda looked like you. Except for the clothes. He wanted his eggs poached. I told him we don’t poach eggs.” She shook her head, then added, “poached eggs,” in a disgusted tone, as if she were spitting into a gutter.

When they closed at five, Carl told Freddy to put the Mercedes in the garage. If he left it out, even inside the fence, the kids in the town might foresee an evening’s entertainment in chucking stones at it.
      Before leaving, he called home, just on the off chance Millie was there. Still thinking about the stranger, why the hell he hadn't come back, and fully expecting the call to go to voicemail, her voice at the other end surprised him. “Oh, you’re home.”
     “Yes,” she said, in that deadpan voice she’d acquired. But he knew what she was thinking: if you thought I wasn’t home why did you call?
      “You want to go out to the Gilded Rail? Grab a steak?
      “I bought pork chops. I thought we’d have them with hash browns and those baby peas you like.”
      What was this about? They hadn’t had dinner together in a week. “Sure. Great.”
      He took a last walk through the garage before locking up, standing for a minute to admire the Mercedes. All three thousand pounds of it. A polished steel missile housing a six hundred horse V12 with enough torque to spin an elephant. But it wasn’t just its sleek shape or what you knew about the engineering underneath that grabbed your attention. It represented something. Freedom, maybe. Possibility.
      On the way home, he stopped at Shockey’s’, a bar attached to a liquor store, and picked up a bottle of pink Chablis. He rarely drank wine, but Millie liked Chablis. The clerk dropped it into a paper sleeve, and he gripped it by the neck and carried it into the bar. Bart was there, standing at the bar talking to Larry Coates and old Ben Grimes. Carl and Bart had gone to school with Coates, a burly small-time contractor whose business had been sliding into the toilet since the recession hit and who now spent more afternoons playing pool at Shockey’s than pouring concrete or framing walls. Coates had played tackle on the football team and followed the Stallions religiously. He wore his hair in a short ponytail and sported a carefully-tended three-day growth of beard that was meant to look scruffy, like some rock star – although to Carl’s knowledge he’d never set foot outside Colton County. Ben was a yellow-toothed, dandruffy, sixtyish little pirate whose belly drooped over the waistband of his polyester pants. He’d been selling real estate in Ridgeland for as long as Carl could remember and served as a constant reminder of what every Ridgeland man would turn into if he hung around long enough. They were talking about the Stallions, the high school football team. The one thing half the men in Ridgeland had in common was the football team: they’d all played on it in one decade or another.
      “They gotta get somebody who can catch,” Coates said. “That Dudley kid drops more balls than a one-handed juggler.”
      The way they talked you’d think they’d been state champions. Best season Carl could recall they’d won three games. And it would’ve been two had not Loganville’s star running back been out with a pulled hamstring. Ridgeland never had been noted for its athletic teams. People still talked about the ’89 basketball team that went to the district finals, and that team finished 19-10. Carl had quit going to the games years ago, but these guys followed the Stallions as if they had fortunes riding on their every game.
     When Carl approached they opened a small gap in their circle of babble, and Bart said, “You ever find that guy you were looking for?”
Carl was pretty sure Bart didn’t remember who he had been looking for or why? He was just filling the air with words. As if it were a hole that needed plugged. It was the way people talked in this town. See ole Huggins bought a new pick up. What’d you think of the game last night? You get any rain out your way? And if you answered, Yeah, a real deluge. We got water up to the windows, they’d just nod and kick the dust and say, yeah, well, see ya later.
     “Who you looking for?” said Ben.
     “Just some guy who dropped off a car for a wheel alignment.”
     “Still hasn’t showed?”
     “No, not yet.”
     “What kind a car is it?”
     “Wow. New? Don’t see many Mercedes around here.”
     Carl looked at them. Bart and Coates each held a bottle of Miller Lite. Old Ben sloshed his brew around in a clear mug. Perhaps it was a generational quirk, but Ben never drank out of a bottle.
     “Pretty new. It’s an S65 AMG.”
     “What’s that?” said Ben.
     “Sounds fancy,” said Coates.
     Carl spotted an empty stool and reached out and slid it away from Bart’s butt and sat down. The others turned and looked at him, as if sitting violated some unwritten rule. He bent down and tucked the wine bottle behind the foot rail then called Joey, the bartender, and asked for a bourbon on the rocks.
     “Make it a double,” he said to Joey’s receding back, and Joey threw a hand over his head to signal he’d heard. He rarely drank whiskey, but he didn’t want to mimic these three. He already had more in common with them than he cared to admit – the pickup, the dead-end job and the frozen tundra of a marriage, to name a few.

It wasn’t until he pulled into his driveway that he realized he’d left the bottle of Chablis in the bar. He thought briefly about going back for it, but he was already late. He sat for a while in the driveway, looking at the house, a little two-bedroom bungalow with an aluminum awning over the front door, sitting back a modest distance from the street, Walnut Street, although in all his years here, he couldn’t remember ever once having spotted a walnut. Lots of streets in Ridgeland were named after trees: Maple and Elm and Birch and Oak. He didn’t know why.
     Millie had insisted on the two bedrooms. They needed a guest room, she claimed. A guest room. In the six years they’d owned it the only overnight guest they’d had was Larry Coates who’d followed Carl home from Shockey’s to borrow a torque wrench, stayed for a couple nightcaps and got too drunk to drive home.
     But he should’ve built that garage Millie had wanted. Everybody else had one, she claimed, and the place looked naked without it. She wanted to keep up with . . . who? Who was there to keep up with? But the garage would’ve saved the finish on the cars, warded off the rust. And he could’ve made a door directly to the kitchen so he wouldn’t be wading through the snow every winter to get to his truck.
     Millie hadn’t said a word about that garage in years. Like a thousand other things, it just didn’t matter anymore. He climbed out and went to face the music.

Halfway to the front door he spotted her through the window and stopped. She stood over the sink, the room so bright he could see the pink flowers on the wallpaper. A smiley face on the cabinet behind her. When had she stuck that thing up? She moved from the window and disappeared momentarily, then reappeared and bent over the stove with a spoon, tasting the sauce.
     He caught her in profile, a wayward lock of hair curled down around her cheek, so familiar he might have been looking at the young girl he had met at The Shed all those years ago, the girl on the barstool in tight blue jeans and a tank top, a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Miller in the other. He’d gone there, fresh out of the Army, for a game of pool with Bart; this was in the days before Shockey’s got its own pool table. Among all the pink cheeks and dazzling white teeth, Carl, at twenty-two, felt old.
     The underage kids in Ridgeland frequented The Shed because it didn’t bother to check ID, and the place was packed with recent high school grads. It was where everyone went before they fell into permanent jobs and bad marriages and graduated to Shockey’s.
     Chalking up his cue stick, he’d spotted her at the bar, sitting sideways on a stool in conversation with two guys wearing high school letter jackets. Bart said he’d seen her at The Shed before, he thought her name was Millie, and he added that she had the cutest ass in town.
     When she caught Carl eyeing her, she slid off her bar stool carrying her bottle of Miller’s, came over to him and said, “Why aren’t you in uniform, soldier?” and he said, “Do I know you?”
     She hooked the thumb of her free hand into the waistband of her blue jeans and smiled at him. “I saw you about a year ago at Barney’s. You were wearing your uniform. I like a man in uniform.”
     “I’m afraid I don’t remember.”
     “I was with some friends. We were at the back in a booth. You were sitting alone at the counter.”
     That wouldn’t have been unusual. Since his mom had left, his dad took his dinner from a bottle most nights, which left Carl on his own. Dinner at Barney’s or Jake’s Pizzeria. He dropped the end of his cue stick on the floor, leaned toward her and sniffed. “What’s that you’re wearing?” He didn’t smell anything, but he’ learned from some of the guys in the Army that women liked to hear things like that.
     She blushed. “Nothing. Just soap and shampoo.”

The kitchen greeted him with a scent of rosemary and warm food. He opened the refrigerator, retrieved a beer and popped the cap. Foam slid down the side of the bottle onto his hand and dripped on the floor. He shook his hand over the sink and wiped it on his blue jeans. Millie came out of the bedroom and brushed past him. “I’ll have to warm it up. I turned off the stove.”
     He wandered to the archway separating the kitchen from the living room and stood looking around. She’d tidied the place up, picked up the stray newspapers and magazines and dusted the furniture. There was a smell of something like lemon Pledge. He turned and went back into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” he said. “I had some business to clear up.”
      “You could have called,” she said.
     She stood at the stove spooning some kind of sauce over the chops. She’d put on a few pounds and her jeans fit too tight around her ass, which for reasons he didn’t understand, inspired a sudden flow of affection. An urge to console her, wrap an arm around her shoulder and tell it was okay, we are all vulnerable to the ravages of time.
     He remembered how he used to like the way her ass looked in a snug pair of jeans. Was that so long ago? It didn’t seem so.
      He sat down at the kitchen table and cradled the beer in his lap. “Smells good,” he said.
     “I found a dead chipmunk on the patio,” she said. “Looked like some animal had got it. Raccoon, most likely.”
     “It was the Duffy’s old tom.”
     She looked at him. “You saw it?”
     “This morning.”
      “And you didn’t . . . you just left it there?”
      “I didn’t want to be late for work.”
     She threw him a tunneled look, gauging him, and wiped a stray lock of hair from her forehead. She withdrew a glass from the cabinet, snatched a cocktail napkin from the counter and placed them on the table.
     “What’s this?”
     “For your beer.”
     He lifted the napkin from the table. It was yellow with a picture of two red puppies drinking from a Martini glass.
     “Aren’t they cute? Mom gave them to me.”
     He decided to play along and poured his beer into the glass. He thought of old Ben Grimes, whose sole claim to gentility was drinking his beer from a glass. He told her about the blackbirds he’d encountered on the lawn, how they’d just clustered in the front yard like it was their personal pecking ground. She said, “They weren’t crows, were they?” Millie hated crows. She lumped them in with buzzards because they ate the carcasses of dead animals.
     “I think I know the difference between a blackbird and crow,” he said. “I don’t know what you got against crows, anyway” he said, although he did know.
     “They eat dead things,” she said.
     He lit a cigarette, and blew a cloud of smoke over the table. “So do we.”
     “You still smoking?”
     He’d been smoking forever, but since she’d quit a year ago, it seemed to bother her. Just another of his thousand or so bad habits that annoyed her. Like the messes he left in the kitchen and the hair in the shower drain. When he shaved, she claimed he splashed water on the mirror that dried into crusty specks she had to scrub off with Windex. And if he drank too much beer, he farted in bed. This last he’d been making a conscious effort to avoid, but of late she was around so seldom it didn’t much matter.
     She put the food on the table and sat down across from him. “So how’ve you been?”
     “Okay. Guy left a car today.”
     “Another deadbeat?”
     “No. This is a Mercedes.”
     “Deadbeats drive Mercedes, too.”
     “Not like this one.” He sawed off a piece of pork chop. “Saw your dad’s picture in the paper this morning.”
     “Yeah. Wasn’t that nice?”
     “Did you go?”
     She stopped her fork half way to her mouth and looked at him. “Of course. He’s my father.”
     “Just asking.”
     Millie gave a thin, wandering account of her week, like an evening sprinkle over an open field, scattering raindrops here and there but not really getting anything wet. Her mother’s arthritis had worsened and Doc Andrews prescribed some new medication for her that seemed to work but made her dizzy. They’d bought new living room furniture – Carl should see it, it was really elegant – and they were installing recessed lighting in the kitchen. High hats, they called it. Her Dad thought Carl could get more business if he spiffed up the front a little, put up a new fence and cleared all the old rusty parts from the side yard. Carl nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”
     She had gotten her hair done in the morning, and Lucy Kunkle, her hairdresser, told her she’d split from her husband again. “She says he’s not ever going to change, he’s . . .”
     His mind had drifted to the man in the suede jacket, the picture in his head of the man lifting the bag from the car. What was it that bothered him about that?
     “Carl?” Millie said. “Where are you?”
     He looked up. “I’m listening.”
     She made a little twisted frown and said, “I swear sometimes with you I think I’m talking to a ghost.”
     He smiled and held out his hand. “Here, touch me.”
     She heaved a sigh and looked out the window. Carl followed her gaze. A combine was chewing up the cornfield beyond the tree line. The machines always reminded Carl of that old video game, PacMan, that little yellow ogre that gobbles up everything in its path.
      She brought her gaze back to the room and looked at him. “It’s no use, is it?”
     “I guess not.”
     When she began to gather up the dishes, Carl leaped up to help. He carried a stack to the sink and began scraping scraps off into the trash can.
     “That’s okay,” she said. “I can manage.” She stood at the sink rinsing off the plates. “You should have taken that job with the FBI. I should have let you go.”
     He opened another beer and carried it into the living room, leaving the beer glass on the kitchen counter. He picked the remote off the end table, and flipped through the channels, pausing a few seconds at each to listen to some smug son-of-a-bitch pontificate on politics or sports or the state of the nation. Why did he watch this crap? Maybe he could find a quiz show or some mindless sitcom. Channel 41 had reruns of Two And Half Men, but he’d seen all the episodes, some two or three times. He settled on an old Seinfeld rerun, tuning in just as Kramer came bursting into Jerry’s apartment to an explosion of canned laughter.
     The phone rang in Jerry’s apartment, and then the phone rang in Carl’s kitchen, and he heard Millie talking to her mother. He could tell it was her mother from the tone and shape of the conversation. He must have dozed off then, because the next thing he knew, there was a man on the screen in a white robe and angel wings trying to sell him life insurance, and he couldn’t hear Millie in the kitchen anymore.