It was 10 P.M. at the Hicksville, Long Island Burger King and Louie didn’t give a shit whether the oil in the deep fryers got changed or not. Tonight marked his one-year anniversary as manager. Twelve months spent stinking of grease and feeling the itch of the polyester shirt. He hunched over the desk in the tiny office, using his ten minute break to double-check time sheets. An MBA and fifteen years at AT&T, only to land here. Taking drive-through orders from people with little grasp of the English language. Working with obese high school dropouts with no regard for personal hygiene. God had drained his bladder on Louie, who didn’t appreciate the shower.
A down-sized, brown-nosed pushover.
That’s what his wife, Lenore, had called him. When he came home from being laid off, his belongings in a box, she seemed almost gleeful. She met him at the door with her arms crossed and a smile on her face.
“They had to find you out, sooner or later,” she offered in the way of comfort.
Once upon a time, their relationship had been warmer. In graduate school, Lenore pursued him with a monomaniacal intensity, sending him flowers and leaving notes on his car. As soon as he received his MBA and signed on with the company where he interned, she abandoned her own studies and announced plans to become his wife. In a very few years she grew into a childless ogre, ironically blaming Louie for her homebound status. He didn’t argue with her, at first hoping things would get better and later merely wishing for quiet moments when he could relax and enjoy being a middle manager during the halcyon days of the early 21st Century.
Early on he got those moments, usually while she went out with her friends. He could lay in the recliner and review his workload. Now, his career gone, he often cranked the chair back and watched the History Channel.
At closing time Ronell was the closest thing to an assistant Louie had. He was an intelligent young man who had been fired from a waiter position at a four star restaurant over a discrepancy in the silverware inventory. There was nothing worth stealing at the Burger King, unless a market opened up for thousand-count boxes of pickle relish packets. The only thing keeping him from management training was his criminal record and lack of a G.E.D. That didn’t seem to bother him a bit.
“The trick in life,” he often told Louie. “Is to be happy wherever you’re at. The joy is in you, not the job.” Then he’d go back to cleaning the grill or wiping down trays. He could be irrepressible, joking when the crew was stressed, consoling when anyone was upset. Louie tried to emulate him, but the philosophy ultimately served only to point out his own flawed life. His wife despised him and his Master’s degree mocked him from its place on the wall.
Closing time at the BK. Ronell runs across the street to a convenience store and returns with a six-pack of beer. He and Wilson, the other closer, leisurely wrap up, wipe up, and mop up while Louie writes up the receipts. Wilson is an acne-scarred white kid who rarely talks. He has other good qualities: Works hard, is never late, can drink a couple of beers without getting stupid. Louie schedules Ronell and Wilson together as much as possible. They make a good yin-yang at the end of the evening. Ronell drops Wilson off on his way home.
Lenore was out when Louie got home Friday night. Probably gone until morning. Louie hated the heavy mix of perfume and alcohol that emanated from her after a night out with her girlfriends. Sometimes he fell asleep on the sofa to avoid that noxious smell. He took off his greasy clothes and changed into a T-shirt and sweat pants. Briefly he pondered the swell of fat beginning beneath his sternum and continuing in an as-yet subtle wave to his beltline. Time. He was eroding like a mountain, the superior falling into the mundane.
Enough of such thoughts. He trod into the kitchen and drank from the orange juice container in the refrigerator. It was time to get online. Visit the news sites, the interesting distractions he found in the digital ether. This $99 Wal-Mart office chair was the place he felt most at home. In front of the computer reading the baseball scores, conducting armchair research on serial killer Edmund Kemper, reading the online edition of The Economist. He sat back down and clicked the keyboard, but the desktop did not light up. Blue Screen of Death, bad news. Thumping on the Enter key, Louie thought of how the machine had become dodgy the past month, taking forever to load, freezing up in the middle of operations. He rebooted the machine. Minutes passed.
Nothing but a flashing cursor in the upper left of the screen. After awhile it disappeared and the screen returned to blue. Louie didn’t know much about computers but he knew that, with this model, the BSOD meant you were done. It was the PC equivalent to Hiroshima. He leaned back and absorbed it all. Like Hiroshima, it made for an eerily beautiful sunset. Leaving it on, he curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.
At work the next night he talked to Ronell.
“The worst part is I’m short on cash and Lenore has maxed out the credit cards.”
“Hell, man, I can get you a great desktop computer for a hundred bucks,” Ronell told him. “Less if you just want the computer part. That is, if you don’t care where it came from.”
“Do it,” Louie told him.
A week passed. Lenore went on a weekend trip with friends and didn’t return. . Louie soaked up the quiet in the house, cherishing every serene, spent moment. When not at the restaurant, he lay on the sofa and studied the dead PC. He didn’t want Lenore to come back. Ever.
At work Ronell announced he had found a CPU.
“It was hell, man. You’re lucky we’re tight. I had to walk through more shit than a Tennessee hog farrmer to get a line on this.”
“Ow! For a stolen CPU?”
Ronell jumped and looked around.
“Keep it down, man. This is quality! Made last year.”
Suddenly Louie felt uncomfortable.
“Hell, I don’t know.” He walked back to his office.
“You don’t know?” Ronell followed him. “I got the mother in my trunk. These guys want their sixty tonight or I start walking like a hermit crab.”
“Man, I’m broke. And no guarantee.”
“This isn’t a situation where you keep your receipt and take it back later. This is called ‘a great deal.’”
“Tell ‘em forty.”
“Oh, shit. Were you a pawnbroker in a previous life?” Ronell pulled out his cell phone and walked off, punching numbers into it as he went.
In the parking lot after work, they settled on fifty dollars. Ronnell popped the trunk and Louie examined the machine. Almost new, a reputable brand. What the hell. He drove home with it belted into the passenger seat like a pre-schooler,
When he got home, Lenore’s car was in the driveway. Louie parked on the street, giving her an easy exit if she decided to leave. He trod up the steps with one arm full and turned the key in the lock. Once in the living room he replaced the ruined CPU with the one he had bought. Just as a flicker appeared on the screen, then the log-on text, Lenore entered the room.
“It smells like shit in here,” she told him.
“Please shut up. For just one night.” His eyes never left the screen. The start-up progam loaded and the Windows logo filled the screen. Perhaps his minor felony had paid off. He barely noticed the door closing as his wife left the house.
Woo hoo! Programs aplenty. Adobe Design Premium. Nero CD/DVD burner. Microsoft Office. Louie was dazzled as he looked at the icons on the monitors. Going to the menu, he found still more programs. This rig was well beyond what his old machine had to offer.
Finally he hit the Documents button. Dozens of titles cascaded down, from spreadsheet phone lists to Photoshop folders to text files. He opened the one labeled “Resume.”
Emily S. Mattingly
2718 Hillcrest Avenue Apt. C
Brooklyn, NY 11218
A wave of electricity ran down his arms. He wasn’t just exploring a computer. He was spying on a life. He breathed deeply and scrolled down.
2006-2007 Student, Freshman
New York University
2008-2009 Hillsborough High School
Wichita Falls, Texas
Activities: Varsity Softball
Louie smiled. He had been in the chess club in high school.
2006-Present Edelmann Media Associates
454 W. 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Position: Receptionist, Proofreader
2004-2005 Seymour Lawn Service
19818 Seymour Highway
Wichita Falls, TX 76717
Position: Secretary, Dispatcher
A sharpness jabbed at his abdomen and he recognized it as guilt.
“Aw, her cowboy parents probably bought her another one,” he murmured to himself. Not entirely convinced, he backed out of the Resume file. A dull ache still persisted in his gut.
Clicking on the Internet Explorer icon, he went online. He had email from a high school classmate warning him of a reunion, seven offers for penis enlargement, and an email from Ronell. Does it work, boss? Was all it said.
So far it’s perfect, he wrote back. I really owe you for this one, buddy.
Days passed and Lenore didn’t return. Louie held his breath. When he returned home one night to find her clothes gone, he went ahead and changed the locks. A new life, some solitude, and this beautiful, faceless young woman he’d found in the computer. She didn’t seem real, like a lost childhood crush or a daughter he’d been meant to have. He read her poems, which were rhymey but sweet, and perused her first semester term papers. Christ. He hoped he had not disrupted her studies.
Of course you did, you idiot. You stole her computer.
Meticulously, he went through each of the files, from the word processing programs to her Photoshop projects. He hoped to find an image of her, but had no luck there or through Google.. Anything she created seemed to have an awkward, innocent quality. Photographs of flowers with cartoon bees added. Each time he explored her world, he felt more guilty. But he didn’t stop.
One night at work he told Ronell:
“It’s bothering me that this kid had her rig stolen so I can surf the net.”
“How do you know it’s even stolen? Maybe she upgraded and farmed it out.”
“For fifty bucks?”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t appropriated somewhere along the way. I’m saying merchandise can go through several subsidiaries before reaching the discount store.”
“I’m thinking of tracking her down and returning it.”
His employee slammed the cash drawer shut with a bang.
“Are you fucking crazy?”
People standing in line jumped and Ronell immediately waved a patient hand at them.
“Sorry, folks. Sorry.”
He glared at Louie.
“You’re joking, right?”
“Cause I took a chance for you. And I could get crossways with a school of sharks if that went wrong. Don’t fuck me up on this.”
“You’re right. Stupid idea. Sorry.”
Louie walked back to his office and sat staring at the wall.
There was a world, and there were good people in it who didn’t work the night drive-through at Burger King or have nagging spouses they feared might return. Something had gone wrong in his life, had frozen him into a lethargic, passive lump. He needed to shake this off somehow. He had ambition once, when he emerged from the MBA program and won the corporate job. He could be that way again: Regain his strength, recapture the fire that once drove him forward. He could learn again how to try.
And the girl, Emily, with the slipshod sonnets and digitally manipulated butterflies. She was alive and young and full of possibility.
At his desk he snatched up the phone and punched in a number he already knew by heart. In the middle of the second ring, someone picked up the receiver.
Louie took a deep breath.