by Andy Kelly
In Benetton, Edward Works stands folding shirts and sweaters. His long blonde hair is pulled into a low ponytail at the base of his neck, his posture is flawless. He enjoys the feel of each new garment, the tactile sensation of the different materials -- cotton, wool, silk -- between his fingers.
On a bench outside the store sits Elroy Nights with a Coke and a bag from Karmelkorn. Edward pretends not to see him, a large man in jeans and a starched Polo shirt, watching. Edward appears to be engrossed in the challenge of folding each shirt or blouse perfectly. Seemingly unaware of the perfect drape of his clothes, his impossible cheekbones, he has the clean, androgynous prettiness of a silent film star or a glam rocker. He forces himself to concentrate on the task at hand, and he doesn't risk a glance in Mr. Nights's direction.
When Stephen walks in with an insect-like cellular phone clamped to the side of his head, Edward doesn't recognize him immediately and steps up to ask if he can help him find something.
Only when he sees the shock in Stephen's eyes does Edward connect the pudgy, tall man in glasses before him with the skinny, mousy boy Edward knew in high school. Something about that look -- a sort of desperation, a wish that he were anywhere else -- is all that remains of the class of 1989's "most likely to succeed." Stephen's eyes dart around the store as Edward waits for him to finish his phone call. Unable to find any way to extract himself from the situation, Stephen finally hangs up, takes a deep breath, and faces Edward. Stephen's clothes, of course, are still a mess -- a short-sleeved plaid dress shirt, black leather cases for his cell phone and Palm Pilot hooked to his belt, wrinkled Lee jeans, dingy white Nikes. "Hello, Stephen. The years have been kind to you." "Eddie? Eddie Works? Holy shit, I haven't seen you in like ten years." He hesitates for a moment, then holds out a hand for Edward to shake. "I told my wife I thought that was you on the billboard by the interstate. I figured you were a model or something." Stephen's lip curls slightly as he surveys the small store's blonde Pergo flooring, black shelves piled with clothing, artsy chromed mannequins. "The company did them everywhere," Edward says. "Ads with the local employees. My fifteen minutes, I suppose." The revelation that Edward works in the mall does wonders for Stephen's confidence. As Edward helps him pick out clothing for his wife, Stephen talks loudly about computers and Europe and money. At the checkout counter, as they wait for approval on Stephen's American Express, he says, "So what're you doing tonight, Eddie? Maybe we could get together, catch up on old times. You could meet Christy and I'd love to see your house." "I'm not sure," Edward says, eyes fixed on the card reader. "I was going to get drinks with friends." "Aw, come on. It'll be fun. What time does the mall close?" Stephen says, leaning across the counter into Edward's space. Edward tears the slip off and hands Stephen his card and receipt. "I leave at five," he says. "Great! How does seven sound? That give you enough time?" "Seven will be fine," Edward says, his voice, he hopes, full of misgivings. Just leave me alone, he wants to say. Instead it's, "Let me tell you how to find me." "No need," Stephen says, holding up a flat, red hand. "Just the address. Got a GPS in the car." As Stephen leaves, Edward checks the bench for Mr. Nights, who has disappeared.
In his third floor apartment, Edward sets his bags from the liquor and grocery stores on the table in his small kitchen. He takes the wine bottles and slides them into the wrought-iron wine rack, puts the beer in the refrigerator, bourbon on the counter. In one of the cabinets, he finds a vase for the flowers he bought at the grocery store.
He had seen Mr. Nights in the produce aisle, pulling grapes off the bunches in the bin. With his right hand he would reach in and grab a fistful. Then he would straighten and glare menacingly around the store while he ate them, challenging someone to censure him. Edward often ran into Mr. Nights at the grocery near their apartment building. Nights lurked in the aisles, waiting for the free samples to be put out or wandering up and down eating a stolen apple. When Mr. Nights caught sight of Edward, he waved him over. As Edward drew near, Mr. Nights, his sleeve wet up to the elbow from the produce misters, held out a handful of grapes. Small beads of moisture clung to Mr. Nights's bald head. Edward took them and said, "Thank you." While Mr. Nights watched, he popped one his mouth. "Good." "They're seedless," Mr. Nights said and went back to his meal.
In the checkout line, the cashier had asked Edward, "Did you break somebody's heart?" as she ran the flowers through the scanner.
Edward smiled at her, unsure of what to say. "Yes. . .No," he finally stammered and smiled again. She had stared at him momentarily, then recited his total. Now the flowers, white carnations, yellow daisies, baby's breath, seem a little bruised to Edward, damaged by their rough treatment at the store, and he regrets not making the extra stop at a real florist. He cuts the ends of the stems off and puts them in the vase. He tries to arrange them, but quickly gives up and hides the flowers on an inconspicuous corner of the antique buffet in the dining area. He starts to place celery, broccoli, and carrot sticks on a large ceramic serving dish, then decides to wait until closer to Stephen's and Christy's arrival. He pours himself a glass of merlot and wanders from room to room in his apartment, turning on lights and opening the blinds and curtains. In the living room, Edward stands next to the window. The courtyard is almost dark, and the fountain in the center glows green as Edward's breath fogs the pane.
He checks to see if Mr. Nights, who lives directly opposite him, is home. The lights there are off, but Edward tings his drink against the window and presses his hand against the cold glass. Across the way, a lamp comes on in Mr. Nights's apartment, and Edward can see him -- bald head, deep-set eyes, gray beard-sitting in the window behind a row of short tripods with telescopes and cameras. Edward smiles and waves, then goes back to making preparations for his guests.
He dusts and vacuums, trying to imagine what he and Stephen (not to mention Christy) will talk about. He runs through the short list of things he knows about people they went to school with -- jobs and marriages, children and divorces and deaths -- but Stephen won't care much. Even then Edward had been beautiful, and though Stephen and he had been more than friends, they hadn't inhabited the same world. While Edward and his classmates went to football games and on ski trips, Stephen lurked and avoided, anxious to get away from them as quickly as possible.
Edward carefully puts away his clothes and fluffs the pillows on his large bed. He turns on the small Japanese Fountain of Peace on the nightstand. He still can't decide if the little fountain is tacky or not, but he had fallen in love with the shiny polished stones the lovely copper bowls. Now he can't sleep without the burble of the water hitting the rocks.
He tries to imagine why Stephen would want to visit him. He has probably made some money, Edward decides, remembering Stephen's devotion to the Chess and Computer Clubs in high school. He has made some money and he is proud of it, although one would never know it from his clothing. Perhaps he genuinely wants Edward to meet his wife, for Edward to testify to what a sweet-seeming soul Stephen was when they knew each other. Picturing Stephen's pudgy, officious face in the store today, Edward tries to conjure up the boy he knew. How can he have changed so much when I have changed so little?
Christy is both tall and dumpy, a combination Edward does not see often. Ushering Stephen and Christy into the apartment, Edward notices her lank hair, maybe ten years out of style. She wears a busy cardigan of unflattering length, and a stripe at the bottom of the sweater draws even more attention to her hips. She must be smart, he thinks, taking them into the kitchen to get them drinks. One of those smart, mousy girls who knew all of the answers and sat in the back. She went to an expensive Baptist college where she handed out tracts and majored in biology or math. Women just like her walk past the store all the time. Occasionally they come in to buy cute T-shirts, but find most of the clothes too racy. Her quiet presence surprises Edward; he had expected Stephen's wife to be the best that money could buy.
Stephen wears the same clothes he had on that afternoon, a vinyl windbreaker thrown over his loud plaid shirt. From the kitchen, Edward takes them on the grand tour. The living room with rich red walls and closely hung prints in gold-leaf frames and slightly too much furniture. The small bath done in black and white. His bedroom which is in a transition phase. The Japanese Fountain has inspired him to redecorate the room with an Oriental theme, and to that end, he has bought two Feng Shui books. In his mind, he can see black-lacquered chests and bamboo screens, but affordable reproductions are hard to find in the flea markets around town. In each room, Christy makes polite noises while Stephen takes loud sips of bourbon. Edward leads them back to the living room where, drinks in hand, they stand uncomfortably for a moment. Christy says, "It's gorgeous." "Thank you," Edward says and makes a small bow in her direction. "What do you call this, Eddie? Early whorehouse?" Stephen says and laughs at his own joke. "Just kidding. Where's the TV?" "In the coat closet," Edward says. "Would you like me to get it out?" "Yeah," Stephen says and plops onto the Queen Anne sofa. Edward, aware of its loose leg, tries not to panic. "You have cable?" "It comes with the apartment," Edward says as he trundles the television out on its small stand. He scrounges behind an oak chest to find the cable wire and hooks it to the back of the set, then he plugs the TV in. He hands the remote to Stephen and sits across the room from them in an uncomfortable occasional chair. "You don't have a computer, do you?" Stephen says. "No, I've thought about it. I might want one. Do they have something small? With a maple case?" Edward can almost see it sitting on his desk. Stephen laughs. "Not unless you want to pay out the ass. No. I mean you might be able to find plastic that looks like maple, but no," and he breaks into laughter again. After what he feels is an appropriate interval, Edward asks, "So what is it that you do exactly? Where do you live?" Stephen flips channels while he talks, finally stopping on ESPN. Stephen and Christy live in Atlanta. "I work for IBM in IT," he tells Edward. "Fucking Falcons suck this year." "It?" Edward wonders if he's joking again. "Information technology. They send me around to different companies, and I set up their computer networks. Make sure everything works the way it's supposed to. Lots of travel." Christy, who's heard it all before, paces around the living room examining Edward's expensive pottery. She apparently takes so little care of herself that Edward worries she will be careless with his things. Fighting the urge to caution her, Edward says, "Oh, really? That's interesting. What cities have you visited?" Stephen rattles them off quickly -- New York, Boston, Washington, Houston, Miami -- while Christy examines the reproductions on the walls. When Stephen's done, she settles next to him, and Edward asks, "How long have you been married?" "About six months," Christy says and pats Stephen on the knee. Edward says, "Ahh," and leans back into his chair. The ball is in their court, he feels. They should ask him something about himself. He will tell them, then he'll find out what she does. Instead, their eyes gravitate toward the television. Despite Stephen's running commentary about the prospects of the various teams, Edward is surprised to find that he enjoys the highlights. The crowds, the perfect grass of the field, the colors of the helmets and uniforms-he finds it all very relaxing. Edward promises himself that he will turn on the football games one Sunday while he reads and naps. When a commercial comes on, Stephen says, "So are you like totally gay now, or what?" Christy sits up straight and says, "Stephen!" "No, I'm serious," Stephen says. "This fairy apartment. The clothes, the hair. You. I mean, you're gay, right?" "It's alright," Edward says to Christy. Then to Stephen, "No. No, I'm not much of anything." "What the hell does that mean?" "I don't know. What I mean is . . . for me . . . sex is like ice cream. . . . Sometimes one wants vanilla. Sometimes strawberry-lime sherbert. It depends on my mood. But I'm not in the mood for ice cream very often." "I don't believe that. Not with the way you used to be. I know you, Eddie," Stephen says. "People want to see beautiful things," Edward says. "People don't want sex." "Whoa, wait a minute," Christy says. "You guys just totally left me out of the loop here," Christy says. "When I was younger, I was very, um, promiscuous." Stephen laughs harshly, "Eddie took all comers. No pun intended." "I thought I could make people happy if I had sex with them," Edward explains to Christy. "But I learned that looking made them happier than possessing, than violating. So I try to have sex as seldom as possible. Objectively, the whole business is distasteful. The organs involved, the odors." Christy laughs and Edward smiles back at her. "So," Stephen says, "you abstain from sex because you're trying to live up to some impossible ideal of beauty and good manners?" "I suppose so. That's certainly one way of seeing it," Edward says. "And what happens when you get old? When your hair falls out, when you get fat?" Stephen says, patting his belly. Edward thinks for a second. "Bowie is almost sixty and still looks good. Johnny Depp is ten years older than I am." For a moment, Stephen's giggles overcome his power to speak. Finally, he says, "I'm sorry. This is just fucking crazy." "What's so crazy about it?" Christy asks, suddenly on Edward's side. "He's living his life in the third person," Stephen says. "Who's watching, Eddie? Who cares? Nobody cares about what you do. How you look. You've turned yourself into some kind of art object for nothing." Edward stands and points to the window. "He cares," Edward says. Stephen and Christy walk over. "Who's he?" Christy asks. From behind them, Edward says, "Elroy Nights. He is . . .Well, he watches." Upon seeing the dim light in Nights's apartment wink out, Edward chuckles quietly. "And he doesn't like to be watched back." Stephen and Christy sit back down on the couch while Edward remains in view of the window. "So you're sleeping with him?" Stephen asks. Christy shuffles away from him a little. "No, no. Nothing like that. We are . . . . Mr. Nights is my friend." "So you guys go bowling together? Play some golf?" "No," Edward says, standing up even straighter. "Of course not. Don't be ridiculous." "I'm glad we came over here tonight," Stephen says. "I really am." Edward, unsure of what to think, smiles at him and says, "I am, too." "I mean, sometimes I worry that I'm fucked up, but you guys with this sicko Rear Window thing going on. You think you're living in The Real World. Except you have a cast of one and an audience of one. You meet some weird people in the computer industry, but they can't hold a candle to you, Eddie." Edward drains his wine glass, then says, "I'm going to get another drink. Would either of you like one?" "I'll have bourbon and water," Stephen says, still chuckling a little. He hands his glass to Edward then puts an arm around Christy's shoulders and shakes her gently. "What about you, hon?" She stares fixedly at her own knees. Though her empty wine glass dangles precariously from the tips of her fingers, she shakes her head. In the kitchen, Edward decides he will have bourbon and water, too. Not that he particularly wants it, he just doesn't want to return to the living room, to Stephen. Over the clink of the ice cubes, Edward hears Christy whispering furiously. Upon reentering the room, the first thing Edward notices is Christy on the couch by herself. For a second he wonders if Stephen has left her. Then Edward spots him next to the window shooting the bird at Mr. Nights with both hands. While Edward watches, he grabs his crotch with his right hand and waggles his tongue. "What are you doing?" Edward shouts as he sets the glasses down and rushes across the room. He forces his way between Stephen and the window and snatches the drapes shut. "This is intolerable," Edward says, his voice shrill. Unaccustomed to conflict, he runs out of words. Christy appears next to him, her arm around him, and Edward fights the urge to flinch away. "What are you going to do about it, Eddie? Kick my ass?" Stephen laughs again. "I don't know what's gotten into him," Christy says. "I've never seen him like this." Edward moves out of her grasp and takes her hands in both of his. "It's alright, Christy. Really. You forget. Stephen and I are old friends. I know how difficult he can be." Christy stares at Edward for a moment, then her mouth drops open and she covers it with her hand. She turns to Stephen and says quietly, "You slept with him, didn't you? Oh my God." Edward steps away from her and his eyes wander to the window. "What?" Stephen says, doing his best impression of shock. She risks a glance at Edward, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. Edward has switched to retail mode and stands with his hands clasped behind his back. "Of course not," he says. He risks touching her elbow and guides her toward the door, "But you two obviously need some privacy." He extends his other hand to Stephen, who follows. Edward tells them that they need to be alone to sort things out. He apologizes for the misunderstanding and the size of his apartment and the quality of his wine. Halfway to the elevator, Stephen, his face blotchy and red, whirls to face Edward and shouts, "You fucker!" Edward steps back inside and locks the door.
After washing Stephen's and Christy's glasses, Edward pours himself some wine and moves the flowers he bought at the grocery store from the buffet to the end table by the window, where Mr. Nights can see them. He hopes their flaws won't be visible from so far away. From the bookshelf in the hall, he selects a leatherbound copy of The Age of Innocence. He sets the glass on the table next to flowers, the wine glowing red in the lamplight. Edward opens the curtains, settles into the blue overstuffed chair, and begins to read from the gilt-edged pages.