Just so you know, this doesn’t end well.
Albert’s seen it all before -- hell, he’s lived it -- and if that’s not an excuse for sympathy, nothing is. But then again, there’s something about Brad’s muddy suit coat and stubble and artful, just-rolled-out-of-a-drainage-ditch-thanks-for-asking hairdo which seems to suggest that he has nosedived over the proverbial rail. Gone is the brightness of eye and yet brighter smile, the winning je ne sais quoi that allowed him to singlehandedly commandeer the Open Spaces marshland project. In fact, if he went into a phone booth to change into his Superman tights, he’d be lucky if he came out looking like one of those swamp creatures from Action Comics No. 114.
But Albert understands. Even if he never fared that badly after falling in and out with Bernard and Vivian, well, nor had he ever caught so much hang time as the inestimable Brad Stand.
Albert and Brad. Brad and Albert.
Albert hasn’t seen him since that day at the hotel. He has to admit, it wasn’t the shining star of his life’s achievement, but he realizes it was necessary: the other members of the coalition almost look at him as they would a leader, and he’s made all his bulldozer shifts. As for the wilderness, he thinks it’s really going to work this time. Thanks to a secondary clause on the land title, construction on the new Huckabees site is progressing no faster than any other slipshod retail center.
You can thank human drama for that. Albert does, and often. He’s also taken to smuggling salamanders out of the woods, just in case. (Although his jacket pockets are not an ideal habitat for terrestrial creatures, he’s found that a worm or two, kept close to the seam, tides them over until they’ve made it to their new home at the Slygo Arboretum. Peanut butter crackers aren’t bad, either.) It goes like this: sneak in under cover of darkness >> duck and roll >> wait >> collect >> exit stage right. He can almost hear the universe applaud.
It sounds like leaves.
Albert thinks that if his life were a play, it’d be written by some dead Russian guy, or maybe Gilbert and Sullivan. Brad’s Aristophanes. It’s in the way he moves, and Albert wonders whether the overworked clerk who’s shelving books in Pop Psychology, and from whom Brad is demanding directions to the nearest restroom, can see just how wrong they are for each other.
For one thing, they locked eyes in Architecture.
This isn’t the sort of thing that only happens to Albert now and again. This is the sort of thing that happens to Albert all the time. But it’s supposed to be the poetry section -- unspoken words flowing out from Rilke-proximity like water by way of a broken spigot -- or by the foreign language films.
Albert snatches up a book on urban planning and flees the scene, only to stake out a café table with a cup of coffee and a terrific view of the Borders parking lot. It takes a mere fifteen minutes for inevitability to strike, and strike it does, robbing him of breath like a swift punch to the gut. Brad’s gone and washed his face, but his collar’s still dirty.
“Hi,” he says, and takes the seat across from Albert. The table shakes as he drops his stack of books. “What’re you up to?”
“Oh, the usual.”
“Trying to save the world, eh? Is this the best base of operations you could find?”
“I didn’t really look.”
“Uh huh. I thought your lot didn’t like big boxes.” Brad’s smile is deliberate and slow. Albert feels his cheeks redden, but chalks it up to faulty ventilation. Brad doesn’t seem to notice. He continues, “Support the little guy. What happened to that?”
What happened to that? What happened to that?
But Brad knows what Albert gets paid at the coalition. He’s seen the tax sheets, and when all’s said and told, it’s never a bad idea to scale up the competition. Besides which, Borders has a better selection.
It makes him feel no better.
“Do you see me buying anything?” he asks, lamely.
“It’s easy to treat private property as your own personal library, yeah? I get it.”
“I don’t think you do.”
Brad shrugs. Then he rifles through his jacket pocket, retrieves a tattered paperback, and proceeds to flick through it, pausing here and there to inspect a yellow post-it or a page marked out by a scrap of newspaper. Albert hasn’t seen a copy of Mr. Tompkins in years, his own having been lost somewhere in the wilds of his apartment.
An old receipt flutters out from the spine, drifting down and down towards the tabletop until there’s nothing to be seen but for a mass of faded chicken scratch. His chicken scratch. Oh.
With a stifled growl, Albert wrenches the book from Brad’s hands. “Did you steal this from me?”
“No,” says Brad, coolly. He extends an open palm. “I wasn’t finished.”
“You stole from me. I can’t believe it. After everything that’s happened. After everything we’ve been through,” Albert says. That’s when it dawns on him. That’s when the thing happens, and for a long moment, Albert can’t separate the planes of Brad’s face from the wall or the air or the backs of his hands. He’s there, and here, and when, and where. Brad’s still his arch nemesis, but with a nemesis like Brad, Albert doesn’t need friends. The universe is just that fucked up. It’s beautiful, too.
Brad’s mouth twitches. “Um,” he says.
“Exactly,” says Albert. And then, softly: “Did you break into my apartment?”
“You left the door open.”
“I never leave the door open.”
“Okay. But you know, when I tried the knob, it wasn’t locked. And since it wasn’t locked, we’re left with but one option.”
Albert lets his eyes go out of focus, and after a moment, Brad’s face is replaced with a wobbly pink cloud, floating before him like a spindle of cotton candy at a carnival. It’s not a bad look.
“Are you high or something?”
“No. No! Who said you could go into my apartment without me?”
“No one said I couldn’t,” says the cloud.
“So you were spying?”
“Spying suggests intention. I was just hanging out, and far be it from me to claim anything, but it seemed wrong to not take advantage of the situation.”
Brad has a point. What’s more, Brad knows he has a point. And so Albert leaves it at this: “Did you ever take advantage of the situation when I was in the shower?”
“You mean did I spy on you in the shower?”
“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer,” says Brad. “For all your talk, you’d think you didn’t want me to get better. Existential crises are tricky things. You should understand that.”
“Um.” Albert turns back to the tattered copy of Mr. Tompkins, feeling his resolution slip. There it goes: down, down further, further still, and gone. “This is really good, don’t you think? I mean, it makes sense. Did you get to the part on temporal fluxes?”
“Fuck temporal fluxes,” Brad replies. “Can’t you tell? I’m only in it for relativity.”
“Right.” Albert hands him the book. And then, “How’s Dawn?”
Brad shrugs. “I think she and that fireman... What’s his name, anyway?”
“Tommy. Right. Last I heard, she and Tommy split town to dole out grain on a llama ranch in New Mexico.”
“Kidding,” Brad echoes. His knuckles whiten with his grip on the table edge, and he pushes Mr. Tompkins back into his pocket. “Isn’t that goats? You know, baby goats? What are baby llamas called?”
“Sounds like one of those revivalist girl groups from the eighties.”
“Right,” says Albert. Then he motions to the stack of books on geckos Brad apparently pilfered from the Animals section. “So you’re going to become a zoologist or something?”
“What? Oh.” Brad shrugs again, looking faintly abashed. “Just a little light reading.”
“Do you like salamanders, too?”
“I don’t even like geckos.”
“Because I’ve a little project going -- a little scheme, if you will -- and if you’re interested in zoology--”
“But if you were. Um. In case you didn’t notice during that whole burgling episode, I have a good selection of National Geographic back at my apartment. They’re one of the foremost authorities on the vanishing ecosystems of the world. Did you know that the population of geckos in the northern hemisphere has decreased by five percent in the past decade? While some of this may be due to a shift in predatory migration routes, humans have almost certainly played a major role in exacerbating this disturbing trend.”
“Okay,” says Brad. Obviously he is but a novice in gecko scholarship, though with a little elbow grease, a little perseverance, and lot of empathy, he’ll come around. It’ll be a while before he gets to the facts of gecko reproduction, and the ability of female geckos to lay eggs without the bother of copulation. Albert suspects Brad’s not ready for that. But in time... In time he’ll move on to salamanders and iguanas and gila monsters and maybe even komodo dragons. Albert has a VHS on those.
Before he has a chance to comment to that effect, the knit between Brad’s eyebrows deepens, and he looks up. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
“I already have coffee.”
“So you should let me warm you up,” Brad says. And then, after a moment, “You know what I mean. Why can’t you just forgive me and be done with it?”
“Who says I haven’t forgiven you?”
“Don’t play dumb, man. I know how to read people. I sat in on a seminar at last year’s Public Relations Society conference. Got a certificate and everything.”
“Well,” Albert says, and sips his coffee. Fuck. Brad’s right: it’s really fucking cold. “Um. Seeing as you were wrong about the significance of everything else, up to and including the little matter of your promotion to Huckabees corporate, what makes you think you’ve retained that particular ability?”
“Just listen to me! I’m sorry about the marsh.” Brad’s mouth quirks into a smile, but his eyes are still muzzy and bemused. “Okay? That’s what you want to hear, right?”
“I don’t want to hear anything.” With that, Albert buries his face in his book. The buzz of the store fades; Brad fades; the grids and schematics and paragraphs fade. He takes a deep breath. For a moment, he feels good. No, better than good. He feels fantastic.
And then the tapping starts. Brad’s fingertips rap out a beat so haphazard and meaningless that it’s a wonder the vibration doesn’t upset the frequency of the table. He wishes he could consult Mr. Tompkins about that.
“Albert?” Brad drawls. “Albert. Albert.”
“Albert. Have you ever noticed that when you say something a few times in a row, it loses its significance? Albert. Albert. Sounds like a gorilla or a frog or something, doesn’t it? Maybe if I place emphasis on the T...”
“Maybe if you went and found another table,” Albert says, not looking up. The thing is, with his newfound awareness of the interconnected nature of Everything, he knows exactly what Brad’s talking about. When Brad says something, Albert has to think for a moment to make sure it hadn’t in fact been himself all along, and when Brad says something stupid, Albert can’t help but feel partly responsible, like one friend who allows another to spend his cab fare on a singing fish after a night of heavy drinking by the pier. Kind of throws that whole “personal choice” thing out the window, you know?
But Brad’s not a quitter. “Are you kicking me out?” he demands.
“I’m merely making a suggestion which would benefit the greater good--”
“That’s it! That’s what Huckabees is all about. They care about the busy schedules of your average American. One-stop shopping.”
“And if future generations are robbed of their rightful connection to the natural world?”
“What’s more natural than one hundred percent cotton blend t-shirts, on sale now at your neighborhood Huckabees?”
Albert snaps his book shut, only to be caught in the crosshairs of Brad’s most willfully lopsided grin. The blue-white iridescent light has a way of tumbling through his hair that sets Albert’s teeth on edge: Brad is not a bystander in the corporate machine, but an emissary sent down from Wall Street, all starched shirts and imported silk ties. Sweet, beautiful Brad.
Bastard. At the moment, that’s the best Albert can do.
“Kidding,” Brad chirps.
“What happened to you?”
“Do you really need to ask?”
“So you slept with her?”
“What?” For a moment, Brad looks truly caught off guard. Then his eyebrows slide back towards his lashes, and he’s smiling again. “You’re weird, you know that?”
“It’s all a matter of context,” Albert replies. “So you didn’t sleep with her?”
“Not exactly. We really just talked.”
“But wouldn’t you know it, my prescription gave me the worst case of--”
“She gave you drugs?”
“Yeah. Just something to dull the nerves. You know, standard snakeoil bullshit.”
Albert hadn’t got any drugs. Of course, Brad’s existential ailment was somewhat more progressed, but he feels strangely put out at the thought of Brad having been given more options through all of this. He can’t help but venture, “Are you sure you have the right dosage?”
Brad looks him hard in the eye. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“No,” Albert says. “You just look a little off.”
“I don’t have a house.”
“I didn’t ask for an apology,” Brad says, not a little sternly. Then he laughs. “You won’t believe it. The claim adjuster suggested the whole thing be leveled, right? Better resale value. But when the crew got down to it, and they were clearing out all the cinders, one of the front-end loaders ruptured the water main. Then, when the county came in to repair it, one little typographical miscalculation led them to dig up the ground beneath the gazebo, not the garage.”
“They struck oil, Albert.”
For a moment, Albert’s left without comment. He stares into Brad’s -- admittedly brighter, now they’ve been talking a while -- eyes, searching for an excuse to call bullshit. But as near as he can tell, Brad’s telling the truth. Albert throws back the dregs of his coffee. “Like, crude oil?”
“No, like canola. Fuck, what else would I be on about?” Brad’s drumming the table top again, and he bites his lower lip for a moment before drawling, “It’ll probably be worth millions.”
“Okay,” says Albert. He looks at Brad’s books on geckos, at the wall and the backs of his hands; the Borders parking lot stretches outside the window like the road to hell. (Apparently, PT Cruisers have replaced brimstone-encrusted chariots as the number one preferred means of diabolical transportation.) Then he clears his throat. “Why are you here, again?”
“I don’t have a house.”
“Okay,” Albert says again. “I’m leaving, you know? You should probably find somewhere to shower. Get some sleep.” He makes no move to get up. “I want my book back.”
“I’ll put it back where I found it.”
“And where was that?”
Brad sniffs. “You should keep better track of your belongings, man,” he says. “By the way, what’s with all those issues of Penthouse from the seventies? Forget National Geographic. You’ve got it bad.”
“Stephen King was a regular contributor.”
“Yeah. Does Dawn know about the oil?”
“She’s not on the lease.”
Albert sucks in a breath; Brad exhales.
“Are you going to leave the door open?”
“I never do.”
And just like that, Albert’s outside, unchaining his bike from a sycamore sapling. There’s still a worm in his pocket, and for a moment, he supposes he might ride over to the woods for an impromptu rescue session. But then again, no. And then again, he knows Brad won’t even need to ask him where he’s going.