The first time Walter Neff told Keyes that he loved him, he thought it was sort of funny, and that was it.
The other man had been on one of his tears, eyes glittering with manic zeal as he described yet another fraud attempt he'd identified and foiled. Something about an insured racehorse, almost imperceptible doses of poison, and a jockey with a touch of vertigo. To be honest, Neff couldn’t completely follow his train of reasoning. Sometimes it wasn’t even worth trying—the stories the man wove were often intricate and strange, like hieroglyphs, and mostly he just liked watching Keyes talk. With the way he spun it, you’d think the two of them were major players in a Shakespearean drama, Hamlet or MacBeth, not employees of an insurance company. And when he spoke, he looked ridiculously alive in a way Neff envied.
“But who do you think set it up?” said Keyes, looking at Walter with expectation, arms akimbo, tapping his foot impatiently. He expected too much from the salesman, really, thought he was something better than a smooth-talking con putting on a marginally more respectable show. Walter adored the man for it about as much as it made him uncomfortable.
“Er… the jockey?” guessed Neff distractedly, still contemplating the paperwork he’d put off completing from his last sale.
“No! How would he even—you haven’t been listening to a word I’m saying, have you?” complained the smaller man, pointing accusatorially at Walter.
“Hell, they don’t pay me enough to catch every word, Keyes—and barely enough for every other.”
“You son of a bitch,” muttered the investigator, a hint of amusement leeching into his voice despite himself.
“Yeah, yeah, I love you too, Barton,” replied Neff offhandedly, filling in the hollow letters on his form with a pencil.
The other man froze for a second, stiffened, and growled “get back to work” around his unlit cigar, riffling through his suit pockets. Neff struck a match and grinned.
Walter didn’t think anything of it. Not anything important, that is. Really, he just thought of it as a useful way to get the other man off his case. To maybe stop him from expecting so damned much out of him. From then on, when he didn’t have the wherewithal to participate in Keyes’s endless entanglements of hypotheticals, he’d throw an “I love you” into the conversation, and like clockwork, the other man would freeze up and stalk off, cursing under his breath.
Walter Neff’s job was too easy. He wasn’t sure he liked it, exactly, but he understood it, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was the one thing in this world that he was good at. He didn’t have the knack for getting things and holding onto them, but he could make promises, customize sagas of unthinkable disaster and misfortune to any audience, or weave fantasies of charting a course for a perfect timeline, and in the short term, he could make a sale.
This skill applied to both his professional and personal life. The difference was that, while the sales were binding, the latter never stuck. He could make men feel downright heroic for something as banal as buying insurance on a new car. He could go to any gin joint and pick up a girl, a real knockout, and have a night, a day, sometimes several nights and days, of something that made it all seem worth it. It was a matter of contracts, and he could never seem to draw one up that could result in lasting satisfaction for both parties.
But he was his own best customer. He’d sold himself the promise that things would eventually fall into line. That every abortive love story was a trial run for the real thing.
So he daydreamed himself into a coma, and when he woke up he was thirty-five—old enough to be president—his hairline was incrementally losing purchase, and the brain beneath it was stuffed with so much useless information on pricing and risk levels and names on dotted lines that some nights he couldn’t get to sleep until he’d worked out the best policy to hock to a completely fictitious client.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected his life to be, but it wasn’t this.
Everyone liked him well enough. Better than well enough, even. He wasn’t a pariah or social outcast or anything dramatic like that. But he didn’t have anyone he’d truly consider to be a friend, nobody he’d particularly care to call up and sit and talk to and have any faith that it would alleviate his loneliness. He didn't want things to be this way, but it was how they always seemed to end up.
Maybe he had Keyes, but Keyes didn’t count. Not really. He was a coworker. They’d sit back in their desk chairs and sip the occasional glass of bourbon in the office at the end of particularly long days, but they’d never so much as gone out for a drink. They'd been working together for years, and he didn't even know what neighborhood the other man lived in.
And what could he talk about anymore with anyone? Panicked, he’d search his thoughts for something that was his, really his, and not the joint property of Pacific All-Risk Insurance, and too many times he’d come up with nothing. He’d taken to joylessly correcting the mistakes of fraudsters, building perfect crimes like other, more domestically-inclined men would build ships in bottles. Men who sat in dens in homes with families that lived and breathed in other rooms with such vibrancy that the occasional moment of solitude became peaceful rather than oppressive. Sometimes Walter would enter these homes with picture frames on their mantels, and in the name of making a sale, he'd tap into a worry he’d never truly felt about having something to leave the ones you loved when you’d gone. And slowly, the scales would tip until he felt less like he was conning someone and more like he was the one being conned.
It was another one of these late workdays, a Friday evening wherein he’d skulked out of one such house, the windows glittering with light behind him as the sun set, the promise of a commission for another sale sitting hollow in his briefcase. They’d made him stay for dinner, a torturous affair complete with a gaggle of small, cherubic children smiling with gapped teeth and prattling endlessly to their beaming parents about games and neighborhood child-gossip. He couldn’t stomach going back to his place after a thing like that, so he’d retreated to the office, thrown his jacket across the back of his chair, and poured himself a drink without bothering with ice.
Keyes was in the office. Keyes was always in the office, and maybe Neff knew what neighborhood he lived in after all, and he lived right here. He’d been wearing a pair of reading glasses that Walter pretended not to know he needed. He’d folded them and surreptitiously tucked them into a desk drawer when the salesman entered the room.
“Rough job? Fish not biting?” he asked, peering at the papers he'd been working on with visible difficulty.
“They’re always biting,” Walter said, unable to fully quell the bitterness in his voice. “Seems like all they do is bite.”
“See, what you need is a challenge. Haven’t I been saying that? Kid, you gotta start thinking about the things you could do. There’s plenty of jobs in this place that’d be more—”
“Want a drink?” Neff interrupted, gesturing with the decanter, the liquor glimmering darkly through its cut crystal. He couldn’t stand being clued in again about his potential. He already knew what he was, and knew it better than anybody.
The investigator shook his head.
“I’m still working.”
“Working,” Neff muttered, finishing a second glass and pouring himself a third, opting for ice this time so he could properly brood. You couldn’t sulk and bolt down liquor. It was meant to be a slow process.
The silence stretched on, punctuated only by the dogged scratching of Keyes’s pencil across miles of forms. Neff drank and sighed.
“Hey, Walter, come on,” said Keyes finally, tucking the pencil behind his ear and rising from the chair. “What do you think about this one? A guy comes in today with his wife and—no joke—they want to take out a policy on their—"
“Love you,” said Walter, not bothering to work it into the conversation. Not wanting to talk anymore, not wanting to have to leave.
“Don’t say that,” the other man said sharply, and reddened when Neff looked up with surprise from his tiny reflection in the glass.
“I said cut it out,” Keyes continued, decidedly leaning into the anger despite his visible embarrassment, and it felt like they were on the brink of talking about something other than insurance claims, though Neff wasn’t precisely sure what, but he figured it was a step in a more interesting direction. “I don’t like it. You want me to shut up, tell me to shut up. Don’t say a thing like that.”
“Yeah?” said Walter, ineloquent, “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to only ever hear it from someone who doesn’t mean it.”
“Well, maybe I mean it,” said the salesman glibly, before he thought better of it, and the next thing he knew, the other man had crossed the room and grabbed him by the lapels, bourbon sloshing from the glass and onto Neff’s hand, and a mouth was pressed to his, tasting like cigars, the man it belonged to smelling of pencil shavings and a faint trace of aftershave. It wasn’t a kiss so much as a furious bit of punctuation, and when they broke apart, Keyes shoved him roughly back into his chair, disrupting more of the liquor.
“No,” he said, stepping back and making defiant eye contact, “you don’t.”
Without another word, the man gathered his papers into his briefcase, unhooked his jacket from the coat tree, and was gone.
Neff stupidly gathered his handkerchief and blotted at the spots on his suit. He stayed a while, drinking, running his fingers across the spines of books on suicide and arson and a million novel deaths worth a billion same-faced dollars, and eventually he made his way back to the empty apartment.
On Monday, he met Phyllis Dietrichson.