“You’ll never get an answer. You can’t think about that.”
"But I do. And then I can’t stop it.”
She goes into his office after they’re seated back in the creative lounge and Don drinks four fingers of Glenlivet in one gulp. Everyone looks up when the chair makes a sudden deep scraping noise, but she’s already gone.
“Joanie,” she hears Roger call, and she hears Don reply to him. Let her go. No one follows her. The click of the door is quiet, the smell is worse, and there’s no lamp to block the view of the awful paradox she finds on the couch.
Lane is here, and Lane is not here. The fragility of such an impossibility will collapse soon.
Miss Blankenship’s face had still been pink. Guy MacKendrick had screamed and screamed and baptized her in his blood, but he had survived, even if diminished. She has never seen a gray human face before, and it takes her a moment of swallowing and trying to unclench the knot in her stomach before she gives up and steps toward the couch.
Two uncontrollable thoughts, one right after the other: From this angle, his eyebrows stick out and make him look like a Great Horned Owl. His right eyelid is wrinkled like an elephant trunk. She stares into the blue ligatures to silence them, and for just a moment, Joan considers the possibility that she’ll accidentally see this face instead of Lane’s face when she thinks of him, cold blood pooled under his gouged flesh, hair plastered flat by the sweat of a struggle. He dressed up to die. She can’t decide if the tie color is more tragic or morbid, and morbid is the word that best describes what she’s doing right now, standing over a dead man when she could be drinking in silence with the other partners, but the casket will be closed, the funeral will be in England, Joan will never see Lane again. All these things are certainties.
He was often melancholy, but here there is a beatific subtlety to his expression. It might be a mysterious smile; it might be the natural way his features relax. The rope is tied in knotted fraying clumps, and Joan turns to see where they’d cut it, twisted blue and white. Lane was connected to that, and now he isn’t.
“Why would you do this?” she asks him.
Roger does take her home. They don’t talk, mostly because she refuses to look at anything but the condensation on the cab window.
Gail is startled when her grown daughter comes through the front door, kicks off her shoes, drops her coat on the floor, and goes right into the bedroom without stopping or saying hello.
“What happened?” says her mother through the closed door. Joan flops backward onto the mattress, her arms spread out to the ceiling, and tries to focus on thinking about nothing at all.
Joan keeps turning the phrase over in her mind.
Lane killed himself. He killed himself.
It has a strange sound after a while, the kay and the double ell combining to make a buzzing noise like a plunger rigged to dynamite, something spectacular and catastrophic.
This was a quiet tragedy, and she didn’t see it coming. She tries not to think about it, but the other partners aren’t going to pull banker boxes from the supply closet. Staff can’t know about any of this until they decide on an appropriate cover story. Building maintenance will collect the couch, but the carpet can’t be torn up and the office can’t be cleaned until everything is packed. No widow alive would come to her husband’s business to sort through his things, and so it all falls to her, because her job is to be the soul of discretion in maintaining order and balance.
His desk is a tableau; the police took no evidence, and everything is here, just as he left it. There is no love letter in the tray drawer marked Joan, only this normalcy suggesting that someone was here, that someone will return. Gloves, cut crystal decanter, a tumbler from Don’s office, the abacus holding down a stack of approved expense reports.
Glasses taped at the nose, clear over here. She looks at the door.
Joan doesn’t have a taste for the sensational, but her mind pictures it. Lane unplugging the lamp, moving it to the cabinet, positioning the table, one step up, punching at the ceiling tile, tying the rope to the beam and then in a loop to fit, climbing down, back over to the desk, drinking the whisky (his hands are shaking), setting his glasses on the blotter, slowly walking purblind across the room, another wobbly step up, carefully adjusting the knot, closing his eyes, taking a deep breath—
No one thought to untie the rope after the coroner came. It needs to come down, it’s visible from the hallway, but for a moment Joan just stands on the table, stares at this loose end dangling in her face. Lane Pryce, in the finance office, with the rope. She unloops it, it’s shiny, a curtain tie or sash brought from home, not nylon cording from the hardware store. It’s so personal. There’s a secret here, and she doesn’t know what it is. Joan runs it through her hand, this death instrument, this last thing he—
There’s a tiny insidious thought that wants very badly to expand inside her head, but she climbs down quickly and the rope end goes pointedly into the garbage.
It really is unintentional, but in the midst of totemic Americana being fastidiously wrapped and boxed—which, based on her vague knowledge of Mrs. Pryce’s tastes, will be tossed on sight—the orange Mets pennant by the door wedges its way between bank statements that wind up on her desk.
She doesn’t find it until a few days later, but Joan folds the felt carefully and places it beneath the checkbook at the bottom of her desk drawer.
The office has been refurbished, and they cannot continue to lease dead space. Roger purses his mouth, recovers quickly. Cooper will make discreet inquiries to those perhaps willing to move, and she keeps her gaze evenly on the table.
No one wants it, of course, but Cooper still comes to her last.
“I know that you and Mr. Pryce were cordial. You are a partner, and it’s appropriate to ask.”
She’s thought about it.
There’s almost something sacred about that room, or at least something powerful. Certain people, those few in the know, have been veering closer to her side of the hallway lately, heads down, eyes averted. Joan doesn’t want it to become a shrine. She doesn’t want to sit there for the rest of her career and stare at the spot where he struggled and lost. She doesn’t want to think about what she said.
Her answer in a low and even voice makes Mr. Cooper nod, put his hand comfortingly on her wrist, and trundle off.
Ultimately the partners decide to remove the partition wall and expand the creative office. Lane Pryce’s nameplate is gone. Freelancers don’t know any difference, but Joan keeps the hall door shut as much as possible.
There’s comfort in continuity, and if Joan objects to taking Lane’s legacy into her office and doing his work, reading his notes, carrying on where he left off, she doesn’t voice it. Cooper describes to her in great detail the difference between commissions and fees, tasks her with writing financial reports, smiles and nods in that proud avuncular way. It’s going well. She’s good at it, and she enjoys being good at things.
But she’s profiting from a man’s death. They all are. It’s everywhere, and it’s inescapable. What came before will always exist, and she’s inherited this job. He was always concerned with details, with downsides, always carefully and prudently considering every alternative avenue. Calm, competent, reasonable Lane. She is vigilant: What would Lane have done? What would Lane have said? Why would Lane do that?
It wasn’t the money. It can’t have been; they’re practically drowning in it, and he’s missing from this great success.
Was friendship insufficient? She thought they were friends, anyway—she knew his favorite deli, that he preferred the complications of loose leaf tea over tea bags for a litany of strangely defensive reasons, when Nigel’s birthday came around, and that he found cricket dreary and exhausting compared to baseball, which he studied and approached with amused enthusiasm.
But she knows Roger secretly likes Katz’s, that Cooper drinks something called matcha in squat little cups, knows when Sally Draper’s birthday is, and that Pete Campbell has never been interested in a sport unless it profited him somehow. Knowing doesn’t seem to be the same as understanding, and Joan knows what everyone thinks of her, even Lane.
She liked things the way they’d been, simple and even, not having to loudly ad lib some vague line about I’ll wait for your decision in the doorway to prevent gossip. Fried chicken for Thursday lunch and extended how was your weekends with his tea set on the coffee table just before 9 on Mondays. Finances throughout the week, unexpected drop-ins and crises met with placidity and reassurance, and a leisurely stroll to the elevators at exactly 5:30 on Friday.
But now this, and no hint, no warning. Maybe she didn’t know him at all.
The thought doesn’t quite reconcile, though.
That’s why I’m looking out for your interests over this company’s.
Joan had never heard such a roundabout declaration, not murmured in her ear by the copy machine and accompanied by a fresh hand, not spoken in earnest passion over candlelight at Delmonico’s, but in her cramped little thoroughfare office during that conversation of all conversations. Even an affirmation of what she didn't have to guess at was restrained and couched mutedly amid something bigger, and perhaps his feelings ran deeper and stronger than he’d let on, maybe her last words hit their mark better than she'd thought.
If he managed to obscure whatever made him do this, what else did she not see?
Joan opens the ledger book to find that time has filled the last two pages where her handwriting once intermingled with Lane’s. There was a push and pull to the records with a few interruptions, but the flow was stable.
Money in—Lane’s precise thin loops. Money out—Joan’s bubbles and points. Money in, Lane. Money out, Joan. Money in, Joan, Money out, Joan. Every day now: money in, Joan. More money in, Joan. She has to turn the page at some point, but she gets there, flips smoothly to go into this void, and finds that he has left her an artifact, an entry he’d already recorded at the top of the previous left-hand page.
It’s a rare mistake for him, and she goes to strike it, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s fine where it is. Joan puts a little X next to it instead, and continues to register the spike in first quarter billings.
Her subconscious mind suspects that she should have left the door closed, that he’d be alive if she’d been willing. Bon voyage, Joan does not go on a luxury cruise now that there’s work to be done. Billings, earnings, statements. The strange little thought gets tamped down, pushed aside, quieted, where it simmers into a boil and erupts unloosed into her dream state, which turns avid for exploration.
She washes the Brylcreem out in the bathtub and rests her chin on his slick shoulder, his torso strict and tense. Slides her rippling hand up his thigh and flips the plug lever to start the clock. He goes with the drain. Firsts grounded in anxiety are best cast aside; she prefers dazed and pliable relaxation as a medium. In bed her fingers burn soft reassurance through his damp hair, and he sighs, pours himself into her, all warmth melting into her hips and plucking along her throat. He wants to kiss her so badly that he can’t concentrate, and she doesn’t even hesitate, arching up with loose mouth to brush his lips.
There’s no murmuring of things like goddess, a magnificent testament to mankind, Reubenesque, or a real fun firecracker of a girl; he doesn’t say anything at all—just holds her face between his palms and breathes slowly, clearly, alive.
It’s not him; it’s the version of him that exists in the back of her mind, and so he’s really her and they are the same, but she wakes up with covers off, her pulse deepened and thinks, would it really have been so bad to do that for a friend she knew and liked and trusted if the alternative is this?