George’s new workplace was an office building beside a museum and a pump station. Only, the office building looked like a pump station, the pump station looked like a museum, and the museum looked like a penitentiary. When he tried to find the office building for his interview, he stopped by the pump station first, then the museum and, finally, the office building.
It felt good to be back in charcoal gray, pin-striped, 100 percent Italian wool, Binaca in a pocket and a silver tie, with a tiny diamond pattern. He had plans: a studio apartment at first while he built up his portfolio, and as opportunities arose, an entertainment system and maybe a new car. The crisp air made his nose run as he slammed his car door, pulled down his sleeves, and strode to the entrance. He sniffed sharply, his eyes darting about at his new fellow workers making their morning trek to the office.
Behind him now was all the calamity of the last year: having witnessed Cheri’s miscarriage from a spy camera, losing Melissa and his job, his home, his mother—and all the digging up of the past, from his father’s sins to his brother’s suicide. He had managed, at last, to put the past behind him and to step out into a new job, in a new town, with new people, who did not need to know anything of the past. George struck up a whistle as he held the door open for two women chatting with each other. They thanked him, he nodded and smiled, and then he caught the elevator with them up to the third floor. Their chatting fell off, and they snuck glances at him as the doors opened and he said, “After you, ladies.”
He rounded two corners, went through a pair of double doors, and gave a little tap dance with his fingers on the receptionist’s counter. “George Fincannon reporting,” he said. “Could you ring Bill Noland for me?” Without looking at him, the receptionist made a call, and George took one of the two cushy seats in the foyer and flipped through a Business Week. Most of the stories read like a course in surviving a war. George looked at his watch. He sat there for 20 minutes. He got up and tapped on the counter to get the receptionist’s attention. “Is Bill here?” The receptionist tugged on one of her earrings and gave a slight nod.
“Well,” George said, “should I just find my office myself?” He had not expected a welcome party, but the lack of attention was verging on rude.
“He’ll be out,” the receptionist mumbled, and she returned to sorting papers.
Then it dawned on George that someone might have told them why he had been fired. His mind ran through possible suspects. Would Martin stoop that low? Or perhaps Cheri once she found out he had left? Or did Ruth feel the need to set the world straight regarding him? Or could it have been his old supervisor? Perhaps his new boss was just then checking out the story. He told himself not to panic, to just deny everything, blame it on favoritism, slander, disgruntled underlings—anything but the habit he had acquired of remotely violating people’s privacy.
He wished only for the old days again, when mentally and emotionally he had built high walls around himself. To live that way was easy, whereas the alternative risked a shredding of the heart, such as what Martin experienced when he found out about Nogo’s death, or what Leonard had experienced in loving George’s brother, or what Cheri would experience once she learned George was gone. There would be the confusion, the hunting for explanations, the disappointment, the rejection, the hurt, the despondency—all the mess of a broken heart. And thinking on that made George ever more glad that he had left without a goodbye.
George waited several more minutes, then looked at his watch. Lunch time was right around the corner. He went back to the receptionist and this time rapped on the counter. “Call Bill Noland and let me speak to him.”
The receptionist punched the numbers and held out the receiver.
George put it to his ear.
“Bill? George Fincannon.”
“Say, George, didn’t you get any of the e-mails we sent you?”
“We must have sent you at least a dozen.”
“Was it my old address? The George-n-Melissa one?”
“Heck if I know.”
“It’s no good anymore. I told you that.”
“Ah. Well, here it is. The company’s under a hiring freeze.”
“Indefinitely. I know. Really tough. The cut-off came two days before you were supposed to start. I’m sorry. I e-mailed you.”
George gave the receiver back to the receptionist, who hung it up and turned back to what she was doing. For some minutes, George simply stood there. It was as if, in trying to go home, he had stumbled on a cliff that went straight down, a long way down, and he saw no way to return.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number.
“Cheri?” he said. “George.” He listened to her chew him out. “Yep. I’m that and more.
Listen, why don’t I pick you up at six and we’ll, eh, figure out dinner?”
With her agreement, he hung up, pocketed the phone, then turned to leave. Just as he was about to step into the elevator, he turned back to the receptionist still sorting her papers.
“Doubt I’ll ever be here again, but I didn’t catch your name,” he said to her.
“You never asked for it.”
“Then it was mutual benign neglect.” He mustered a smile.
“Maxine,” she said, eyeing him warily.
“George,” he said, holding out his hand. They shook. “Have a nice day, Maxine.”
And with that George retraced his journey back to Nogo’s Arcade and his friends, where the heart could not retreat.