Illustration by Idiots’Books
Suzanne came home a week later and found them sitting up in the living room. They’d pushed all the furniture up against the walls and covered the floor with board-game boards, laid edge-to-edge or overlapping. They had tokens, cards and money from several of the games laid out around the rims of the games.
“What the blistering fuck?” she said good naturedly. Lester had told her that Perry was around, so she’d been prepared for something odd, but this was pretty amazing, even so. Lester held up a hand for silence and rolled two dice. They skittered across the floor, one of them slipping through the heating-grating.
“Three points,” Perry said. “One for not going into the grating, two for going into the grating.”
“I thought we said it was two points for not going into the grating, and one for dropping it?”
“Let’s call it 1.5 points for each.”
“Gentlemen,” Suzanne said, “I believe I asked a question? To wit, ‘What the blistering fuck—’”
“Calvinball,” Lester said. “Like in the old Calvin and Hobbes strips. The rules are, the rules can never be the same twice.”
“And you’re supposed to wear a mask,” Perry said. “But we kept stepping on the pieces.”
“No peripheral vision,” Lester said.
“Caucus race!” Perry yelled, and took a lap around the world. Lester struggled to his feet, then flopped back down.
“I disbelieve,” he said, taking up two ten-sided dice and rolling them. “87,” he said.
“Fine,” Perry said. He picked up a Battleship board and said, “B7,” and then he said, “What’s the score, anyway?”
“Orange to seven,” Lester said.
“Shit. OK, let’s take a break.”
Suzanne tried to hold in her laughter, but she couldn’t. She ended up doubled over, tears streaming down her face. When she straightened up, Lester hobbled to her and gave her a surprisingly strong welcome-home hug. He smelled like Lester, like the man she’d shared her bed with all these years.
Perry held out his hand to her and she yanked him into a long, hard hug.
“It’s good to have you back, Perry,” she said, once she’d kissed both his cheeks.
“It’s fantastic to see you, Suzanne,” he said. He was thinner than she remembered, with snow on the roof, but he was still handsome as a pirate.
“We missed you. Tell me everything you’ve been up to.”
“It’s not interesting,” he said. “Really.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
So he told them stories from the road, and they were interesting in a kind of microcosm sort of way. Stories about interesting characters he’d met, improbable meals he’d eaten, bad working conditions, memorable rides hitched.
“So that’s it?” Suzanne said. “That’s what you’ve done?”
“It’s what I do,” he said.
“And you’re happy?”
“I’m not sad,” he said.
She shook her head involuntarily. Perry stiffened.
“What’s wrong with not sad?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it, Perry. I’m—” she faltered, searched for the words. “Remember when I first met you, met both of you, in that ghost mall? You weren’t just happy, you were hysterical. Remember the Boogie-Woogie Elmos? The car they drove?”
Perry looked away. “Yeah,” he said softly. There was a hitch in his voice.
“All I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You could—”
“Could what?” he said. He sounded angry, but she thought that he was just upset. “I could go work for Disney, sit in a workshop all day making crap no one cares about? Be the wage-slave for the end of my days, a caged monkey for some corporate sultan’s zoo?” The phrase was Lester’s, and Suzanne knew then that Perry and Lester had been talking about it.
Lester, leaning heavily against her on the sofa (they’d pushed it back into the room, moving aside pieces of the Calvinball game), made a warning sound and gave her knee a squeeze. Aha, definitely territory they’d covered before then.
“You two have some of the finest entrepreneurial instincts I’ve ever encountered,” she said. Perry snorted.
“What’s more, I’ve never seen you happier than you were back when I first met you, making stuff for the sheer joy of it and selling it to collectors. Do you know how many collectors would pony up for an original Gibbons/Banks today? You two could just do that forever—”
“Lester’s medical nothing. You two get together on this, you could make so much money, we could buy Lester his own hospital.” Besides, Lester won’t last long no matter what happens. She didn’t say it, but there it was. She’d come to grips with the reality years ago, when his symptoms first appeared—when all the fatkins’ symptoms began to appear. Now she could think of it without getting that hitch in her chest that she’d gotten at first. Now she could go away for a week to work on a story without weeping every night, then drying her eyes and calling Lester to make sure he was still alive.
“I’m not saying you need to do this to the exclusion of everything else, or forever—” there is no forever for Lester “—but you two would have to be insane not to try it. Look at this board-game thing you’ve done—”
“Calvinball,” Perry said.
“Calvinball. Right. You were made for this. You two make each other better. Perry, let’s be honest here. You don’t have anything better to do.”
She held her breath. It had been years since she’d spoken to Perry, years since she’d had the right to say things like that to him. Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have thought twice, but now—
“Let me sleep on it,” Perry said.
Which meant no, of course. Perry didn’t sleep on things. He decided to do things. Sometimes he decided wrong, but he’d never had trouble deciding.
That night, Lester rubbed her back, the way he always did when she came back from the road, using the hand-cream she kept on her end-table. His hands had once been so strong, mechanic’s hands, stubby-fingered pistons he could drive tirelessly into the knots in her back. Now they smoothed and petted, a rub, not a massage. Every time she came home, it was gentler, somehow more loving. But she missed her massages. Sometimes she thought she should tell him not to bother anymore, but she was afraid of what it would mean to end this ritual—and how many more rituals would end in its wake.
It was the briefest backrub yet and then he slid under the covers with her. She held him for a long time, spooning him from behind, her face in the nape of his neck, kissing his collar bone the way he liked, and he moaned softly.
“I love you, Suzanne,” he said.
“What brought that on?”
“It’s just good to have you home,” he said.
“You seem to have been taking pretty good care of yourself while I was away, getting in some Perry time.”
“I took him to Musso and Frank,” he said. “I ate like a pig.”
“And you paid the price, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. For days.”
“Serves you right. That Perry is such a bad influence on my boy.”
“I’ll miss him.”
“You think he’ll go, then?”
“You know he will.”
“Some wounds don’t heal,” he said. “I guess.”
“I’m sure it’s not that,” Suzanne said. “He loves you. I bet this is the best week he’s had in years.”
“So why wouldn’t he want to stay?” Lester’s voice came out in the petulant near-sob she had only ever heard when he was in extreme physical pain. It was a voice she heard more and more often lately.
“Maybe he’s just afraid of himself. He’s been on the run for a long time. You have to ask yourself, what’s he running from? It seems to me that he’s spent his whole life trying to avoid having to look himself in the eye.”
Lester sighed and she squeezed him tight. “How’d we get so screwed up?”
“Oh, baby,” she said, “we’re not screwed up. We’re just people who want to do things, big things. Any time you want to make a difference, you face the possibility that you’ll, you know, make a difference. It’s a consequence of doing things with consequences.”
“Gak,” he said. “You always get so Zen-koan when you’re on the road.”
“Gives me time to reflect. Were you reading?”
“Was I reading? Suzanne, I read your posts whenever I feel lonely. It’s kind of like having you home with me.”
“Did you really eat sardines on sorbet toast?”
“Don’t knock it. It’s better than it sounds. Lots better.”
“You can keep it.”
“Listen to Mr Musso and Frank—boy, you’ve got no business criticizing anyone else’s food choices.”
He heaved a happy sigh. “I love you, Suzanne Church.”
“You’re a good man, Lester Banks.”
Perry met them at the breakfast table the next morning as Suzanne was fiddling with the espresso machine, steaming soy milk for her latte. He wore a pair of Lester’s sloppy drawstring pants and a t-shirt for a motorcycle shop in Kansas City that was spotted with old motor-oil stains.
“Bom dia,” he said, and chucked Lester on the shoulder. He was carrying himself with a certain stiffness, and Suzanne thought, Here it comes; he’s going to say goodbye. Perry Gibbons, you bastard.
“Morning,” Lester said, brittle and chipper.
Perry dug around on Suzanne’s non-medicated food-shelf for a while and came up with a bagel for the toaster and a jar of peanut butter. No one said anything while he dug around for the big bread knife, found the cutting board, toasted the bagel, spread peanut butter, and took a bite. Suzanne and Lester just continued to eat, in uncomfortable silence. Tell him, Suzanne urged silently. Get it over with, damn you.
“I’m in,” Perry said, around a mouthful of bagel, looking away.
Suzanne saw that he had purple bags under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept a wink all night.
“I’m staying. If you’ll have me. Let’s make some stuff.”
He put the bagel down and swallowed. He looked back at Lester and the two old comrades locked eyes for a long moment.
Lester smiled. “All right!” He danced a shuffling step, mindful of his sore hips. “All right, buddy, fuckin’ A! Yeah!”
Suzanne tried to fade then, to back out of the room and let them do their thing, but Lester caught her arm and drew her into an embrace, tugging on her arm with a strength she’d forgotten he had.
He gave her a hard kiss. “I love you, Suzanne Church,” he said. “You’re my savior.”
Perry made a happy sound behind her.
“I love you, too, Lester,” she said, squeezing his skinny, brittle back.
Lester let go of her and she turned to face Perry. Tears pricked his eyes, and she found that she was crying too. She gave him a hug, and felt the ways that his body had changed since she’d last held him, back in Florida, back in some forgotten time. He was thicker, but still solid, and he smelled the same. She put her lips close to his ear and whispered, “You’re a good man, Perry Gibbons.”
Lester gave his notice that morning. Though it was 8PM in Tehran when Lester called, Sammy was at his desk.
“Why are you telling me this, Lester?”
“It says in my contract that I have to give my notice to you, specifically.”
“Why the hell did I put that there?” Sammy’s voice sounded far away—not just in Iran. It sounded like he had travelled through time, too.
“Politics, I think,” he said.
“Hard to remember. Probably wanted to be sure that someone like Wiener wouldn’t convince you to quit, switch companies, and hire you again.”
“Not much risk of that now,” Lester said. “Let’s face it, Sammy, I don’t actually do anything for the company.”
“Nope. That’s right. We’re not very good at making use of people like you.”
“Well, email me your paperwork and I’ll shove it around. How much notice are you supposed to give?”
“Yowch. Whatever. Just pack up and go home. Gardening leave.”
It had been two years since Lester’d had any contact with Sammy, but it was clear that running Iranian ops had mellowed him out. Harder to get into trouble with women there, anyway.
“How’s Iran treating you?”
“The Middle East operation is something else, boy. You’d like it here. The post-war towns all look like your squatter city—the craziest buildings you ever saw. They love the DiaBs though—we get the most fantastic designs through the fan channels….” He trailed off. Then, with a note of suspicion: “What are you going to do now?”
Ah. No sense in faking it. “Perry and I are going to go into business together. Making kinetic sculptures. Like the old days.”
“No way! Perry Gibbons? You two are back together? Christ, we’re all doomed.” He was laughing. “Sculptures—like that toast robot? And he wants to go into business? I thought he was some kind of Commie.”
Lester had a rush of remembrance, the emotional memory of how much he’d hated this man and everything he stood for. What had happened to him over the years that he counted this sneak, this thug, as his colleague? What had he sold when he sold out?
“Perry Gibbons,” Lester said, and drew in a breath. “Perry Gibbons is the sharpest entrepreneur I’ve ever met. He can’t help but make businesses. He’s an artist who anticipates the market a year ahead of the curve. He could be a rich man a hundred times over if he chose. Commie? Page, you’re not fit to keep his books.”
The line went quiet, the eerie silence of a net-connection with no packets routing on it. “Goodbye, Lester,” Sammy said at length.
Lester wanted to apologize. He wanted not to want to apologize. He swallowed the apology and disconnected the line.
When it was time for bed, Suzanne shut her lid and put the computer down beside the sofa. She stepped carefully around the pieces of the Calvinball game that still covered the living room floor and stepped into a pair of slippers. She slid open the back door and hit the switch for the yard’s flood-light. The last thing she wanted to do was trip into the pool.
She picked her way carefully down the flagstones that led to the workshop, where the lights burned merrily in the night. There was no moon tonight, and the stars were laid out like a bag of synthetic diamonds arrayed on a piece of black velour in a street market stall.
She peered through the window before she went around to the door, the journalist in her wanting to fix an image of the moment in her mind before she moved in and disturbed it. That was the problem with being a reporter—everything changed the instant you started reporting on it. By now, there wasn’t a person alive who didn’t know what it means to be in the presence of a reporter. She was a roving Panopticon.
The scene inside the workshop was eerie. Perry and Lester stood next to each other, cheek by jowl, hunched over something on the workbench. Perry had a computer open in front of him, and he was typing, Lester holding something out of sight.
How many times had she seen this tableau? How many afternoons had she spent in the workshop in Florida, watching them hack a robot, build a sculpture, turn out the latest toy for Tjan’s amusement, Kettlewell’s enrichment? The postures were identical—though their bodies had changed, the hair thinner and grayer. Like someone had frozen one of those innocent moments in time for a decade, then retouched it with wizening makeup and hair-dye.
She must have made a noise, because Lester looked up—or maybe it was just the uncanny, semi-psychic bond between an old married couple. He grinned at her like he was ten years old and she grinned back and went around to the door.
“Hello, boys,” she said. They straightened up, both of them unconsciously cradling their low backs, and she suppressed a grin. My little boys, all grown up.
“Darling!” Lester said. “Come here, have a look!”
He put his arm over her shoulders and walked her to the bench, leaning on her a little.
It was in pieces, but she could see where it was going: a pair of familiar boxy shapes, two of Lester’s mechanical computers, their cola-can registers spilling away in a long daisy-chain of worm-gears and rotating shafts. One figure was big and round-shouldered like a vintage refrigerator. The other was cockeyed, half its gears set higher than the other half. Each had a single, stark mechanical arm extended before it, and at the end of each arm was a familiar cracked and fragrant baseball glove.
Lester put a ball into one of the gloves and Perry hammered away at the keyboard. Very, very slowly, the slope-shouldered robot drew its mechanical arm back—”We used one of the open-source prosthestic plans,” Lester whispered in the tense moment. Then it lobbed a soft underhand toss to the lopsided one.
The ball arced through the air and the other bot repositioned its arm in a series of clattering jerks. It seemed to Suzanne that the ball would miss the glove and bounce off of the robot’s carapace, and she winced. Then, at the very last second, the robot repositioned its arm with one more fast jerk, and the ball fell into the pocket.
A moment later, the lopsided bot—Perry, it was Perry, that was easy to see—tossed the ball to the round-shouldered one, who was clearly her Lester, as she’d first known him. Lester-bot caught the ball with a similar series of jerks and returned the volley.
It was magic to watch the robots play their game of catch. Suzanne was mesmerized, mouth open. Lester squeezed her shoulder with uncontained excitement.
The Lester-bot lobbed one to Perry-bot, but Perry-bot flubbed the toss. The ball made a resounding gong sound as it bounced off of Perry-bot’s carapace, and Perry-bot wobbled.
Suzanne winced, but Lester and Perry both dissolved in gales of laughter. She watched the Perry-bot try to get itself re-oriented, aligning its torso to face Lester-bot and she saw that it was funny, very funny, like a particularly great cartoon.
“They do that on purpose?”
“Not exactly—but there’s no way they’re going to be perfect, so we built in a bunch of stuff that would make it funnier when it happened. It is now officially a feature, not a bug.” Perry glowed with pride.
“Isn’t it bad for them to get beaned with a baseball?” she asked as Lester carefully handed the ball to Perry-bot, who lobbed it to Lester-bot again.
“Well, yeah. But it’s kind of an artistic statement,” Perry said, looking away from them both. “About the way that friendships always wear you down, like upper and lower molars grinding away at each other.”
Lester squeezed her again. “Over time, they’ll knock each other apart.”
Tears pricked at Suzanne’s eyes. She blinked them away. “Guys, this is great.” Her voice cracked, but she didn’t care. Lester squeezed her tighter.
“Come to bed soon, hon,” she said to Lester. “I’m going away again tomorrow afternoon—New York, a restaurant opening.”
“I’ll be right up,” Lester said, and kissed the top of her head. She’d forgotten that he was that tall. He didn’t stand all the way up.
She went to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She crossed to the window and drew back the curtain and looked out at the backyard—the scummy swimming pool she kept forgetting to do something about, the heavy grapefruit and lemon trees, the shed. Perry stood on the shed’s stoop, looking up at the night sky. She pulled the curtains around herself an instant before he looked up at her.
Their eyes met and he nodded slowly.
“Thank you,” she mouthed silently.
He blew her a kiss, stuck out a foot, and then bowed slightly over his outstretched leg.
She let the curtain fall back into place and went back to bed. Lester climbed into bed with her a few minutes later and spooned up against her back, his face buried in her neck.
She fell asleep almost instantly.
<<< Back to Part 80
As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.