A Story for Anyone Who’d Do It All Over Again
Josh Mailer didn’t know that his company needed Vice President of Human Resources.
If he had, he probably wouldn’t have pulled the rooster boxers he’d just won on over his Dockers. Still—even as he sat down in the too bright second-floor office that he’d been called into as the Christmas Eve Happy Hour/Pie-Eating Contest broke up—he was sure this had to be a prank, retaliation for the mushroom seeds in everyone’s keyboards that had literally sprouted like mushrooms over Thanksgiving.
“Should I guess why I’m here?” Josh asked the placid-faced blond woman.
Her placid face and placid eyes didn’t acknowledge his question, so he did a scan of her empty-except-for-one-manila-folder desk and bare shelves for a webcam pointed at his whipped-cream dappled nose. If he could find one, then he’d know everyone was crouched around a screen, taking bets on how many tears he’d let slip before the joke stalled and crumbled. But when her eyes flashed to greet the security guard now standing over him, Josh knew that there was no cam, no tears and no joke.
And there would be no severance, no recommendation. They’d even contest it if he’d applied for unemployment insurance, the placid-faced blond woman explained as she handed him two Kleenexes. Though he was DestinyApp’s third hire and Chief Brand Engineer, a BS title handed out instead of a raise, there would be no equity either. All his employer of the last four years could offer was a life coach to help him through “the shift.”
“The shift to what?” Josh asked, wiping his nose.
She handed him a business card that he stuffed in his pocket with the Kleenexes. The guard’s arms bulging through a starched navy blazer tried to hug each other.
Josh stood and spun out of the door before the guard could get around the chair. He reached the stairs and saw his boss, his ex-boss, Rich making a hunched march up.
“Sorry, man,” Rich said, passing without looking up. “You know how it goes.”
Josh tensed his entire being, wanting to lunge, but turned and let gravity pull him down the stairs. He stumbled and caught himself on the railing. Before the guard could offer a hand, he leapt the last steps and ran to his desk.
“Your passwords are burnt, guy,” the guard said.
“All I want is my charger.”
Josh fished it out from the surge protector, along with the backup flash drive he’d stored on the floor since he wrecked the last one with the spillage of a $5 latte.
When he got to his Jetta across the street, he turned back to survey the Victorian-house-turned-office right as the non-denominational Christmas lights flashed on.
A man in a jumpsuit knelt down on the stoop to change the locks. The words Josh wanted to yell at the building were too foul to be said aloud, especially with a procession of tiny angels, wise men and shepherds wobbling out of the pre-school next door.
So he took out his phone and tweeted them instead.
The house was dim and empty and did not stink of hound. He hated that.
His wife was already at her mom’s with the baby, the beagle and the Xanax. He scooted the cat from the top of his laptop on the kitchen table and opened it. The screen glowed just enough for him to log into Gmail. Usually, the inbox just popped up, but he got a login instead. His password didn’t work, twice. He lifted his hand to slam the thing shut but there was an instant message from his wife. She wanted to video chat.
His son would be on her lap and he wasn’t sure if he could stand to see that—or could stand not to. He clicked “Accept” and lifted the screen all the way up. A few bloopy sounds and there they were: glowing through the screen, bouncing in that way the boy demanded in return for his oozing sort of calmness that was still the one undeniable achievement of Josh’s existence.
“Why don’t you just leave right now?” she asked.
He nodded and knew she wasn’t serious. He had to take care of the cat in the morning so they wouldn’t feel guilty about spending all Christmas and most of the day after with her mom. That could go unsaid but what about his job or lack thereof?
“Why are you sitting there, in the dark?” She was serious now as the baby made a baby noise that released some dad chemical in his dad brain. “Are you having a séance?”
“Just miss you guys,” he said and told her all the things he was going to clean up or fix before he left. As the list grew, her smile did too. “I should get going,” he said.
“Hey, but…” She adjusted the baby, as if trying to shield him from what she had to say next. “Your tweet,” she whispered. “Why would you want to do that to Rich?” her whisper became almost silent. “With a poisoned-tipped dick?”
“Um.” Right when he needed to think fast, his brain went hollow. “Happy hour. Jaggermeister. Neil grabbed my phone. You know how it is. Some guys won’t grow up.”
“Exactly. It wasn’t even funny at all and it has like fifty-nine retweets.” She was trying to remember the second sentence of the tweet, which was grosser and somehow less funny. He feared her sanctimony, which always made him whiny then apologetic, which then tended to lead to him being honest about the exact thing he was trying to hide.
He wasn’t going to ruin her first Christmas with the baby. Not intentionally.
Thankfully, from off-screen her mom asked, “Isn’t he coming?” in her British accent that made it seem as if everything was urgent and bothersome. Shelly, their beagle, yipped. Her tone also sounded urgent and bothersome. Maybe it wasn’t them.
“Maybe I should stay home,” he said.
The disappointment on her face was inevitable. His hobby was avoiding anything related to Las Vegas, the Fake Crab Capital of the Universe—especially her mother.
But he’d promised. “Why?” his wife asked, knowing the answer.
“It’s just work, you know,” he said. “They’re dumping shit… lots of stuff on me.”
“Why would today be any different? You can bring your laptop… if you have to.”
She didn’t mean that. Sneaking his laptop into the postpartum room had been the one sin that constant repentance did nothing to diminish. It was smarter just to move on.
“I’m sorry. I’m coming. It’s just…” He knew his whole world might suck into an apocalyptic void if he said one more wrong thing. “You know me. I’m spiritual.”
She let out a knowing, soft moan in agreement.
“I’m spiritual” were their magic words. Say them any time in any context and watch strangers emotionally genuflect, as if you’d actually admitted something profound yet personal. The more out of context, the better. They called it “Pleading the First.”
“He can use my machine,” her mother said, offering the Pentium 4 she’d bought off the Home Shopping Network a decade ago. “Just make sure he leaves by dawn or he’ll miss dinner.” Dinner was at 3 PM. Vegas was five hours away. But she was right; on holidays, the I-15 out of LA was one long clogged artery as soon as the sun was up.
“I know,” he said and hated his whininess.
She looked over her shoulder to see if her mom was lingering and winced.
“You okay?” Josh asked.
“I’m fine.” There was an earthquake in the chat window as she got up and took her phone and the baby into the other room.
The worst was coming.
“I hate to bug,” she said, settling the boy into her lap on the plush couch. “But you didn’t hear anything about a bonus at all? No big deal. Just wondering.”
“Yeah, no. Not yet. But it could come before New Year’s or…”
“No, it’s fine.” It wasn’t fine. The complications of her pregnancy would have busted a small bank and them several times over, if not for insurance. But even with the best coverage he could negotiate, it cost them halfway to six-figures, almost all of which was still owed to Visa. The thrombosis and constant risk of an embolism meant that she shouldn’t go back to her desk job yet.
It also meant she and the baby should take a quick flight home instead of a long drive, if they could afford it. Now they couldn’t, ever.
“You know I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, it’s fine. Mom asked if she should return our gifts for the cash.”
He tried not to react but knew she could feel his ache hundreds of miles away. Her mother’s compulsive need to push money on them had almost broken them up a half dozen times when he first left teaching to find a career that actually handed our bonuses.
“I’ll figure it out,” he said.
“I know you will.”
He shot baskets on his driveway by the light of the moon until just after ten, when two different elderly neighbors decided to curse him out at the same moment.
Inside, he sat at the kitchen counter and stared into the dark outside, afraid to open the laptop and get caught again. He hadn’t eaten—and he couldn’t. Instead he downed a beer and fell into the one spot in the couch where the baby would nap with him. Two and a half hours till he had to be up. Was it even worth closing his eyes? He went to the guest bathroom to sort through the old prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet. The cough medicine with codeine was expired and slightly congealed. He took a swig anyway.
“Sorry, Jolene,” he said, as he kicked the cat of his spot again.
He was silently listing all the reasons he wouldn’t be able to sleep when he recalled that he hadn’t checked his phone. He found it under his keys, wallet and the flash drive. Nothing but a missed a text from a number he didn’t recognize just after 5 PM.
“You OK?” it asked.
“Who this?” he responded and popped the cap off a beer.
Less then minute later, “Check your pocket.”
Josh pulled out the business card and the Kleenexes:
Your Life Coach
The number matched the text, he realized as he blew his nose.
“How many people just tell you to fuck off?” Josh responded.
“So I’m not original.”
“If you invented grief, you better get a design patent for it.”
Christ, a real-life Life Coach.
He’d once nosedived second date from the most attractive woman he’d ever met, besides his wife, because on her nightstand she—a model with such perfect ears there were whole catalogs filled with her lobes—had a book about how to be your own life coach. He’d asked her if there was a life draft or life’s minor leagues. “You should go now,” she said and he’d laughed. She didn’t let him explain that he was imaging her in a Dodger uniform bouncing around third base, waving her arms, sending him home.
“Adorable. Thanks,” Josh texted. “Happy Christmas, fucknut.”
“I can help,” Andy Wakins wrote back.
“Don’t need help.”
“Your tweet suggested otherwise. You don’t want to do anything silly. Think of your wife, son.”
“Fuck. Off.” He set his phone down on the counter and instantly felt bad. This guy was texting him on Christmas morning and was worried—or was paid to worry. He grabbed his phone. “I’m fine,” he wrote. “Thanks for asking. Just isn’t a good time.”
“Worst time to be alone. Or to feel alone, since we never really are.”
“No shit,” Josh responded, realizing he didn’t owe this guy a thing.
“I lost my mom right around this time,” Andy Wakins wrote.
“Me too,” Josh wrote, before he could stop himself. He set down the phone and stared at it. And just as he feared, it began to ring. Andy Wakins, the Caller ID said.
He let it go to voicemail and then it rang again. This could go on forever and he couldn’t shut he phone off, in case his wife called. He gave in. “Hi, I’m fine. Thanks.”
“She was young,” the voice said. “Younger than me today. That freaks me out.”
“Sounds like you should talk to a Life Coach about this,” Josh said and immediately regretted being such a dick. “Mine too. She’d just turned thirty.”
“Was she sick long?”
He wasn’t going to tell a stranger his story, the story—how he’d missed most of 7th grade to stay home with her, how he’d only left home to go the library to look for his father’s number in shelves of phone books they used to keep of those fat soft books before the Internet, how he couldn’t find it, not until the day it didn’t matter anymore.
“Too long,” Josh said. “But not long enough. Not at all.”
“Wow,” Andy Wakins said. “That’s exactly it. Isn’t it?”
“Can I bill you for this?”
Andy Wakins laughed a sad laugh and then laughed at his own laugh. “Seriously, I can make this better for you. Let me do that. I owe you now. What do you need?”
“Well, Coach, can you help me go back and do the whole damn thing again?”
“All of it? From the very beginning?”
“Is that possible? Did they teach that in your online course?”
“If necessary. But do you know how you’d do it over? That’s the key.”
Whenever Josh hated his life enough, he thought of his best frenemy Todd Gold—a venture capitalist who had retired at 30 when a startup he backed was bought by a defense contractor. They were in nearly the same classes from the time Josh moved in with his aunt in the ninth grade. Then in their second year of UCLA, Todd got buff, took Intermediate Financial Accounting I and rushed a frat.
If Josh had followed Todd’s exact path—as Todd always told him he should’ve—instead of going abroad to study Ibsen in Norway, his life wouldn’t just be easy. It would be heaven. Instead of deferring student loans, he’d be hibernating under piles of college girls to avoid calls from universities begging to name cancer labs and food courts after him.
“Down to the exact classes I should have skipped and the ones I shouldn’t have.”
“That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say.” Andy Wakins said. “Sleep now. I promise you’ll wake up with a new perspective.”
The line went dead and Josh was thankful. He’d been spared a cheering up.
To celebrate, he scooted the cat from the couch again and set the alarm on his phone, though he was sure that he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep, possibly ever.
It was so dark that he wasn’t sure if he was alive. He reached for his phone, and it was gone. He groped the couch’s armrest then tossed the cushions to search the innards. When he found nothing but crumbs, he fell to the floor and started feeling up the carpet.
“Are you tweaking over there?” a woman’s voice asked. Gears softly began to grind as the curtain opened revealing the bluest sky he’d ever seen.
It was morning. Late morning. He was missing Christmas.
“Need some help?” another woman said.
He looked around the strewn remains of a party and saw that two women were on the bed were wearing Mrs. Claus lingerie—one outfit, split between the both of them.
“Do you need an Advil?” the woman with the Claus bikini top.
“I think you threw it at the bouncer who kicked us out of the club.”
“No, you gave it to the doorman as a tip,” Mrs. Claus bikini top said.
“That was his wallet,” bottom said.
“Oh, right. You’re right.”
“Is this Christmas?” Josh asked. “Are we missing Christmas?”
“Some people have to work,” bikini bottom said.
“Right. Of course.” Josh got up and ran over to the window. Below him, the Strip’s flatulent pizzazz and sallow tourist skin glittered. “This is all wrong.”
“The sauna party in Cabo was all wrong?” bottom asked. “The Fetish Eve Ball was all wrong? The Elf Gangbang was all wrong? You’re figuring this out?”
“I have a wife,” Josh said, trying to find his mother-in-law’s house in the distance.
“We know. She picked us out,” top said. “Are you OK? I get like this when my molly wears off too. I pretend everything was an accident. No one believes me either.”
Josh turned to face the two women. They were exactly what he would have ordered. Betty in a bikini bottom. Veronica in just a top. Veronica’s features rounded where they were supposed to be and sleek everywhere else. And Betty’s eyes—like a cat’s—rendered some secret and permanent verdict on his being. “You know my wife?”
“Only in the Biblical sense,” Betty said. “But we can play any game you want. It’s your black card.”
“I have to find her.”
“She’s probably where you sent her, with her girlfriend, in your plane.”
Josh sank to the floor. He had everything he’d ever wanted.
They gave him Cristal because that’s all they’d ever seen him drink.
He was just about to sip it when he stared out the two-story tall window and realized he wasn’t late. He was in Vegas. He was early. “I gotta go,” he said, standing up.
“Who’s stopping you?” Betty said.
“Where we going?” Veronica asked.
“To my wife.”
“Aspen! White Christmas, bitches!”
“No, no, no. Please. Just wait here.”
“Perfect,” Betty said, lying back down as he searched for shoes.
But before he was out the door, he turned to them. “Got any cash I can borrow?”
He had to wait for them to put on the schoolgirl outfits he’d bought them. Then they had to wait for elevator with nothing to say. As they winded through shadowy fluorescence of the casino, he suddenly thought to ask them if they knew his name.
“I forgot,” Veronica said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s probably best,” he said.
Finally a tinge of natural light led him to the entrance.
“Sir, sir, sir, Mr. Mailer,” a hotel employee yelled from across the lobby.
“I wouldn’t stop if I were you,” Betty said.
They all ran out the front door then speed walked down the long driveway to the strip. Traffic was stalled on both sides of the street. When it was clear no one was chasing them, he faced the two women. “Anything I borrow, I’ll pay back, I promise.”
“You’re good for it,” Veronica said. “We know. Your butler told us.”
“My butler?” He spun around, expecting to find a curt British man in a tuxedo.
“You gave him a half day off so he could be with his baby,” Betty said.
That was the first nearly decent thing his new self had ever done.
“He’ll be back from LA at three. So my credit card’s got you till then, just as long as you can still cover the room,” Veronica added. “Twenty-five K is over my limit.”
“Twenty-five thousand?” he asked.
“A night,” Betty said.
Josh refused to process this information. A taxi rolled past them. “C’mon.”
He caught up with the cab to knock on the passenger side window. But the driver just pulled forward the two feet he could. Josh ran up and knocked again. He could tell he was about to be told to “Piss off,” until the driver saw his other two potential passengers.
The two women got in the back and Josh sat shotgun, an arrangement that instantly agitated the driver, whose dyed jet-black hair couldn’t hide the fact that he would be Josh’s father’s age. “Henderson, please,” Josh said.
“Henderson is a suburb, guy. Suburbs don’t have centers,” the driver said. “That’s like me telling you to take me to the desert—or the ocean.”
“He had a rough night,” Veronica said leaning into the back of the driver’s chair and speaking softly toward his ear. “First time rolling molly.”
“Right,” the driver said. “Happens to every guy.”
“Can you take us to near where the 215 and 95 meet?” Josh asked.
“Sure,” the driver said. “Henderson. Cool.”
Josh had never driven to his mother-in-law’s from this direction, and nothing made sense. The meter ticked past hundred dollars before they finally found the entrance to her development. It resembled the entrance to the fifty other stretches of sand-colored track homes they’d passed. The driver didn’t complain. He just cruised slowly waiting for Veronica to lean into the front seat to tune the radio as each song ended.
“I like this one too,” he’d say, woozy yet with a predatory glint in his eyes.
“There it is,” Josh said. The Union Jack leaning off the porch gave it away. “Okay, wait here,” he said to them all. But the driver’s smile worried him.
He didn’t know any of these people had existed an hour ago and had no attachment to them, except that he was sure that this driver was about to zoom off into the desert with Betty and Veronica to never be seen again, which would be his fault.
“I have Lojack on these two,” Josh said. “They’re microchipped. Like cats. GPS. I know exactly where they are every minute, every day.”
“You do?” Veronica said.
Betty elbowed her. “We’re OK. Go do whatever the fuck you think you’re doing.”
“Thanks.” He wandered up the driveway, trying to smell what was cooking. But in the suburbs, you never smelled what people were cooking. That, he realized, was clearly the point: not to get implicated in your neighbors’ stink.
Through the front picture window, he saw his mother-in-law stand up and leave the room. There were two babies on the floor, tugging a plush beagle toy from each other. One fell backwards, crying, helpless with her Tyrannosaurus arms flailing. His wife was on the couch. She tried to get up but fell back down. Her leg. The clots. He hadn’t caught them on time and made her see the doctor. She yelled for someone from deep in her gut.
Her mother rushed in followed by a man, a stubby, scruffy man who picked up one of the babies as her mother cradled the other.
They all bounced around the room until Josh’s gaze caught theirs. The man bounced the bounced the baby over to the door, which he opened with his free hand.
Pizza for Christmas? Last year, they wouldn’t even let him get canned cranberries, which are better than actual cranberries if microwaved just right. He looked at his wife, stranded on the couch, trying to get comfortable but failing. Then she made eye contact with the baby in her mom’s arms. She smiled. The same smile she had for their boy. “I forgot it,” Josh said. “The pizza.”
“Any idea where?” the guy asked. “You’re our only hope, Obi Wan.”
“Yeah, I’ll go get it.”
“Great idea,” the guy said.
“Thanks,” Josh said and turned around. Suddenly something turned him back before the door shut. He stuck his shoe between the door and jamb. “Excuse me,” he said.
“Do you live here?”
“What gave me away?”
Josh nodded, staring into the eyes of the crying baby girl, who returned his stare as if she knew him, until the door shut. He backed away and kept staring through the window. His mother-in-law set the crying baby on the couch and she and his wife both doted over it. All his mother-in-law wanted in life was a little granddaughter and her daughter living with her. Now she had both—more than both.
He turned and ran to cab. Veronica was giving the driver a neck massage.
“He said he’d leave you here unless I did this,” she said.
“She negotiated him down to that,” Betty said. “It was a kind of impressive.”
“Don’t stop,” the blissed out driver said. “Right there. That’s the knot.”
Josh wanted to choke him—and the world. But he just got in instead.
“Back to where you found us, please, now,” he said.
“Weren’t we going to party?” The driver sat up. “Roll molly and whatnot.”
“Later,” Veronica said. She pulled her hands away to wipe them on her skirt. “When it’s fun out.”
“Here’s good,” Josh said to the driver as they hit a stoplight before the hotel. He turned to Betty and Veronica, “Go on, please. Get out.”
“But you…” Veronica said and Betty swatted her leg. “Fine.”
“What’s your text so we can hook up later?” the driver shouted at Veronica.
They both shut their doors and jogged out of the street, as the driver twisted his neck, trying to get a last good view of one of them. “How much?” Josh asked.
“One-thirty-nine and fifteen cents.”
“Christ.” He twisted around to dig into his empty back pocket. When his head was over his shoulder, he pointed out the back window and asked, “Jesus, is she flashing us?”
“Where?” the driver asked.
“Now they’re both doing it.”
“WHERE?” he shouted, nearly climbing into the backseat to get a better view.
Josh opened the car door and fled. He grabbed each woman by the hand and pulled him between the cars. His old self would never have done this, mostly because he couldn’t afford the bail. Now what did he have to lose?
“I get it,” Betty said, pulling away her hand. “I can keep up.”
And she could, even though she was in leather boots. They crossed the street and headed past the giant spinning globe fountain down the driveway toward their hotel.
The driver was still stuck at the red anyway. But he was screaming loud enough to be heard a hundred feet away. “It’s fucking Christmas,” he shouted.
“Do I have the key?” Josh asked both women as they entered the lobby.
“Mr. Mailer!” said an employee who’d been placed by the door to wait for him.
“Don’t stop,” Betty said.
It was too late. Another employee was standing directly in his way.
“Your guests are here—both of them,” the first employee said.
“Good,” Josh said and that didn’t seem to satisfy them. “Excellent.”
“Should we put their rooms on your account?” the second asked.
Josh looked at the women. Veronica shrugged and Betty seemed to be refusing to acknowledge that life was happening. “Of course?” Josh said.
“Of course, of course,” both employees said. The second added, “That’s what your butler said but we just wanted to be sure. We don’t normally rent out all of our penthouses to the same person. So you know, we just wanted to…”
“Of course,” Josh said. “My butler?”
“Yes, sir,” the first employee said. “He’s in your room, waiting for you.”
“He’s back!” Veronica said. “I love that guy.”
“Really?” Josh asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know? He’s spiritual?”
The sound of a car’s wheels screeching could be heard from outside.
Josh didn’t have look to know it was the cabbie. “I need to see my butler, now.” He grabbed both women’s hands and began to sprint into the depths of the casino. As Betty broke free, Veronica pulled ahead to lead the way. When they got to the elevator, Josh was out of breath but he had to ask Betty, “Why did we want to avoid the staff?”
As the doors closed, her cat eyes judged him harshly, the way he deserved to be judged. But she smiled. “If I were you, I wouldn’t want to get caught with two hookers while being chased by statutory rapist. But I guess that’s why I’m not a billionaire.”
None of them had the key. He rang the bell. Nothing. The women stared at Josh until he decided to pound on the door. Twenty seconds of that and nothing.
“What’s his name? My butler?”
“ANDY!” Josh yelled and pounded. Nothing. “ANDY!”
He turned his back to the door and sank his butt to floor.
Wasn’t it supposed to be exactly not like this? Wasn’t he supposed to find out that all the little things he’d done had made the world a better place? But no. No saving his brother from drowning. No preventing Tiny Tim from starving. Had he been anything more than a dingleberry on the ass hair of life that once plucked reaffirms the humanity of the now dingleberry-less being? No. Nope. Not at all. His wife’s mother had exactly what she wanted, and he wasn’t sure his wife wouldn’t have traded a few dozen blood clots for that. And what had achieved but the resources and depravity to exploit multiple women and elves while wasting college tuition for a softball team of orphans on one night of partying—on Christmas? He wanted to get to that window so he could open it up and sail out. He looked up. Veronica was tilting her head, trying to read him.
“What would you do, if you could do your life over again?” he asked her.
“I’d probably have become a vegan earlier,” she said. “My mom wouldn’t let me, but I could have done it, most of the time. My mom said I even hated meat baby food.”
“Maybe I’d have become a veterinarian or gone into the army? But maybe not.”
He turned his head to look at Betty.
“I wouldn’t have gone into that sauna in Cabo. Or I’d have called the Elf Protection League.” She offered him a hand. “This is pathetic. Let’s call the front desk.”
Josh let her pull him up. The penthouse door opened. All the curtains were shut and it was nearly pitch black. But a pinkish, full, kind face emerged into the hall light.
“Andy!” Veronica screamed and ran into the butler’s arms. “You saved us.”
His butler sent the women to the spa.
“They’re opening it just for you, ladies,” he said. “Don’t worry, I insisted they find the only Jewish Latino manicurists in Nevada.”
Josh nodded as if that had always been the plan.
As soon as the women were gone, Andy undressed a navy suit from its plastic bag. “I picked this up on Melrose,” he said, “along with a virulent strain of gonorrhea.”
“Are you Andy Wakins?”
“And do you know who I am?
“Did you molly? I told you to not to take anything they gave you.”
“You’re my life coach.”
“Let’s not say things we can’t take back. We need to focus.”
“Because today is what you’ve worked your whole life for?” Andy reminded him of what he’d told his board of directors, Fortune dot com, his wife: “First line of my Wikipedia, you said, like forty-nine times.”
“I talk like that?”
“Maybe after we room service you some espresso. Four shots?”
“Five. And a hypobaric chamber.”
He’d never had a suit that fit him so well. Actually, he’d never had a suit that had fit him at all. He just didn’t know that before.
“Who all is going to be there again?” Josh said, deciding to talk the way he imagined someone in a suit that fits should speak.
“Just Rich and Todd. You agreed, no lawyers. Rich sent up the offer summary for you review. And after you delouse your teeth, you have two minutes to review it before you have to go down.” He handed him a toothbrush with toothpaste on it.
Josh started brushing. “Me?”
“I’m taking our guests to see the ventriloquist impressionist magician. Unless you want us all to join?” Andy shook his head.
“You don’t want us to join you. Not till after.”
“Right,” Josh said and spit out into a cup Andy held out for him.
“Now read this.” He held it up for him.
Josh skimmed until he got to the numbers: $2.9 billion, for all code and intellectual property related to or created in conjunction with DestinyApp LLC.
“Someone is paying $2.9 billion for that piece of shit?”
“Yep,” Andy said, handing him a chunky platinum watch. “You are.”
Todd met him at the entrance to Le Steakstro, which was hidden off one of the high-rollers poker rooms. It was huge and cavernous and smelt like fresh stacks of cash money. Josh had no idea places like this even existed.
His old life was a stinky fish bowl. He’d been released into the ocean deep.
“We make sure he fixed that one thing. Then we sign. Then steaks. Then girls,” Todd said. “The girls are here right? Your blond from Cabo? She’s so severe. I love it.”
Josh didn’t know what to say. So he nodded.
“Nice,” Todd said and turned to lead him into the restaurant.
Everyone they passed, even the wait staff, seemed recognizable. Ex-reality stars, guitarists from 90s Grunge bands, bald guys who yelled about stock prices on TV. This is what they were doing on Christmas. They were just as depraved as him.
There at the table was Rich, smiling that smile he only smiled after he’d taken a historic dump or had stolen someone’s idea. Josh wanted to choke him out immediately but he was afraid that would break the Prime Directive or bend the Space-Time Continuum, which he’d do eventually. He just needed to know what the hell was up first.
Todd was already sitting with his napkin in lap. Resting his elbows on the table, he leaned toward Rich and said, “Just tell me it’s all fixed.”
Rich took a deep breath and let it out, “It’s all fixed.”
“Oh, hell yes. Sommelier!” Todd yelled into the void. “A bottle of Dom each.”
“What’s fixed?” Josh asked as he sat down.
“Exactly,” Todd said and repeated his order into the void again.
“Exactly,” Rich said and demanded they both toast his water glass, which they downed as three bottles of Dom Perignon in three ice buckets arrived delivered by three waiters. Todd filled each of their glasses up until they overflowed a bit and made a toast, which included an order for three more bottles. Too dry. Too sweet.
Josh set his glass down and said, “But seriously, I asked, ‘What’s fixed?’”
“Yeah, you did,” Todd said.
“Yep,” Rich said. “That was a good one.”
He tried to seem as if he was in on it. “Just detail or two, for my edification. The return policy on this kind of transaction demands a little due diligence.”
Rich looked at Todd who was studying Josh. Todd laughed and nodded so Rich did too. “Some detail would be amusing, I imagine,” Todd said. “But not too much. The eyes have ears in here, if you know what I mean.
“Definitely,” Rich poured himself another glass. “Your people were a huge help.”
“Our people?” Josh asked.
“June, the HR lady. She got him right out. And the ex-Bureau guy…”
Todd said, “Right. Right. But the problem. It’s gone. He’s gone.”
“He’s gone—we nuked everything, even his personal email. And the letter he’s getting day after tomorrow will let him know that if he ever mentions anything to anyone or even @ mentions me on Twitter again, he’ll be vacationing in Guantanamo.”
Rich laughed and Todd carbon copied his laugh.
“So gone like how?” Josh asked.
“Fired. No severance. Nothing. Or do you mean the email? There just deleted.”
“But did you say why?” Josh ignored Todd’s glare drilling into his cranium.
“At-will employment is why. He violated policy by using personal email at work, if anyone asks. He didn’t and no one will.
They’re too busy counting their bonuses. And we gave the problem the card of the guy your Bureau pal recommended. The keeper.”
“Andy Wakins?” Josh asked.
“See. You know more than I do.” He lifted a glass for another toast.
Todd complied so Josh did too.
“It begins,” Rich said. “Merry Christmas to all! I’m texting a generous donation to the Red Cross for whatever fucking terrible thing is going wrong somewhere tonight.”
“A gentlemanly touch,” Todd said. “My friends will join us later. Josh’s too. This is a naked Twister night. I can feel it.”
They both looked at Josh, waiting for him to become Josh again.
“But the guy,” he asked. “Why’d he have to go?”
“Are you going to make me go into your own demands?” Rich asked, plaintively.
“No,” Todd said. “He’s not.”
“Yes,” Josh said.
“No,” Todd said.
“Yes, I am. I just can’t get into the Christmas spirit, unless I know it’s all good.”
“It is,” Rich said. “Look, we took the masking out. We’re getting the IP addresses. All the data is matched to the users.”
“Even though you said that you wouldn’t do that,” Josh said.
Rich looked at Todd who was still drilling into Josh’s head with his gaze. “We say we can. In the terms and conditions.”
“On page two-hundred and thirty-nine,” Josh said.
Rich shook his head the way he did whenever you tried to use things like facts against him. “You read the terms and conditions?”
“I was bored on the plane.”
Actually, he’d help write them last summer and begged Rich to take that loophole out, for their own sake. An app that was designed to read your mind—that gave you search results before you even knew you needed them, that booked colonoscopies before you remembered to make them, that completed transactions at the precise moment it would save or make you the most money—required absolute trust. No one would or should use it if they thought that some corporation, government or ex-wife who put you through chiropractic school could use that data against you, possibly in a court of law.
“I get that you want to make more money than you’ll ever be able to spend, while everyone else scrapes by,” Josh said. “That’s the American Dream. But don’t you think you have an obligation to at least let people know that they’re your product?” He looked at Todd “Because if it’s just about money, there’s always going to someone with more, who made it faster.” Todd sipped champagne and Josh turned his gaze back to Rich, “Because eventually, won’t we just wake up and realize we’re vampires. Not even vampires—parasites who drain the future until it’s just another cloned piece of shit for the App store? Actually, we don’t even have the dignity of parasites. We’re viruses—lifeless organisms that replicate with only one goal, destroying anything that’s not us.”
Rich smiled the same dull smile he’d smiled when Josh had first asked about the terms and conditions in October. “Are you just fucking with me right now?”
“He’s definitely just fucking with you right now,” Todd said.
Todd didn’t care about anything but the win, which is why he won. The goal of life was to make some hot piece of shit then sell it to Google, Lockheed Martin, Putin. Anyone. What was the use of fighting that? It was the same instinct that made Rich think more money would fix his marriage, his inability to look people in the eye. The same thing that made him sure that he was one pile of girls away from heaven.
This is how life worked—with him or without him.
“Of course, I’m just fucking with you,” Josh said.
“Billionaire humor.” Rich raised his glass for another toast. “I’ll get used to it.”
“I love it when he pretends to have a conscience,” Todd said. “It’s darling.”
They each finished their bottle of Dom. Todd handed Rich the offer and a pen.
“One more tinsy, eensy, weensy thing,” Josh said.
Todd shook his head. “Nope. Not now. No more coitus interruptus. Let him sign.”
“But I’ve just got to know. This guy, the problem guy, did he have a family?”
Todd groaned, lifted the empty bottle and called for the waiter again.
Rich grinned. “Not for long,” he said.
Josh stood. He was deciding to go around the table or over it to get to Rich’s larynx when what felt like a three-hundred-pound sack of flour hit his back. His entire body crunched forward, face first, directly into the table.
The curtains’ gears began to open, revealing the sleek black desert night distorted by the glow of fat pixels from downtown’s last-century neon signs.
Josh was flat on the couch, but coming to.
“Is it still Christmas?” He lifted his chunky watch, which plopped on his nose.
“Somewhere, maybe.” Andy was walking toward him, pouring Cristal into a paper cup, which he placed in Josh’s hand.
“Do I really drink this?”
“Eight glasses a day.”
“I’m a history’s worst monster.”
“That’s what that cab driver seemed to think. What did you do to him?”
“Stiffed him, I suppose, in multiple ways. Can we get him two hundred bucks?”
“I’ll wire it to him in jail.”
“Where is everyone?” Josh asked.
“Todd’s room. The ladies are trying to calm him down. Apparently Rich left, with the contract, unsigned.”
“You know, I helped him fix his whole stupid idea. And I told him not to call it Weejah. Told him they’d sue us if we did. He listened to me then.”
“I’m not supposed to know the antecedents of most of those pronouns, right?”
Josh downed the Cristal and sat up. He found Andy in the blur. “Is it too late?”
“Todd told me to send you over as soon as you woke up.”
“No, no. Is it too late to go back?”
“To LA? Aspen?”
Josh stood up and almost fell back down. “Please do not fuck with me right now, Andy. You know what I mean. I want to go back again. How do I wish myself back?”
“You know. To being a broke loser in my shit life.”
Andy seemed baffled, or to be putting on his best impression of baffled. “Is that the new first line of your Wikipedia?”
“I just want my shit life back, please,” Josh said. “I get it. The world wouldn’t be any different at all without me. And that’s my fault. I sucked at everything.”
Andy backed away. “But do you know what would you do differently? Exactly?”
Josh nodded until he realized he had an answer.
“I’d live like mattered. I’d do good things only I can do—or at least I’d try. I’d never stop trying because that’s all there is.” This sounded like a vague threat or a lame sexual brag. But to Josh, it was the closest he’d ever gotten to actual spirituality.
“That’s it?” Andy asked. “How about your ex-employer, would you bother him? And that tweet? Would you erase it?”
Someone pounded on the door. Todd shouted, “Open up, you fuck!”
Josh rushed Andy and grabbed his collar.
“Please, just let me go back,” he said—and let go of the collar. “I won’t talk to anyone about that stupid fucking app, ever. You have a kid. You get it.”
“And what about the flash drive? Will you give it back?”
Josh nodded. What was he going to prove anyway? There were fifty other startups doing what DestinyApp did, but better. Putin probably owned two.
Andy backed away from him and stared into Josh’s eyes for far too long.
“This may be what you want, but you saw her,” Andy said. “She’s happy, without you. Maybe even happier. Who are you to judge?”
Josh knew that was right. He only knew what was best for him, if he knew anything at all. “If I wasn’t supposed to change, why did any of this happen?”
“Who cares?” Andy asked.
“If it doesn’t matter to me, who’s it supposed to matter to?”
Andy nodded. “Alright. Go on then. Lie down. I’ll make sure it’s quiet in here.”
Josh didn’t move. It couldn’t be this easy. “Can you give all my money to them, Betty and Veronica? So they could become veterinarians or vegans?”
“Fine. But just don’t try to make this all not misogynistic now. It won’t work.”
When Josh didn’t move, Andy started bouncing up and down, winding his arms toward the bedroom. He was sending Josh home.
It was dawn, or just before it, when the cat landed on his head.
He tossed pillows everywhere until he found his phone:
Friday, December 25
He hugged Jolene until he felt her back claws tearing into his skin. She leapt from his arms. He pulled off the rooster boxer shorts and began the hunt for his keys and an envelope so he could mail the flash drive to the Federal Trade Commission.
The freeway was already full so he turned the dial on the radio until he found a Christmas song he didn’t recognize. It was about Santa getting a new pimped out sleigh, which didn’t seem to quite be the right spirit. But the back-up singers seemed pleased.
He sat there for maybe an hour, trying to be sure he was actually himself. When the feeling hit him, he picked up his phone and deleted his tweet. Then he deleted his entire account. Twitter asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
As soon as he clicked, “Yes,” his phone rang.
He clicked “Accept.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I assume you’re still sleeping,” his wife said.
“Not at all, as far as I can tell.”
“Good. I won the bet.”
“Good.” He summoned anything that felt like courage. “We can use the money. I was fired.”
He heard her take a sip of air in. “For that tweet?”
“No, no. The tweet was my severance to them. They didn’t reciprocate.”
“I see.” She was thinking hard. “Now it all makes a little sense.”
He heard a soft roar of a cry from his son.
“Do you still want me to come?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said, unconvincingly. “Or we can come home.”
“No, no. Stay there.”
The cat whined from its carrier in the back seat.
“You’ve kidnapped Jolene?” she asked.
“I was thinking… How about we move to Henderson and I start teaching again?”
“Because we can’t afford to get my mom any other gift?”
“I wish I were that thoughtful.”
“But won’t the fake crab buffets and tourists in matching leopard skin sweat suits racing their scooters to catch the Osmonds opening for Britney Spears hurt your soul?” She got louder with each word to be heard over the cat’s protests.
“Not if it’s where you want to be.”
“You think I want to be in Henderson?”
“I think I hate you for making me admit that.”
He could hear the sound of suckling. It was the boy’s breakfast time.
“And I think I hate myself for not figuring this out before,” he said.
“That’s life, I guess.” She adjusted the phone, as she kept speaking. “Sometimes you just gotta fuck someone with a poison-tipped dick to figure what you’re missing—or at least let the world know you’re considering it.”
“I had no idea you were so spiritual,” Josh said.
She let out a soft, soulful moan that almost sounded real.
“Either you learn or you don’t,” he said. “Only you decide that.”
“Mine’s better,” she said. “Tweet mine. Actually, just shut up and drive.”
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[Image via Paul | Flickr]