Illustration by Idiots’Books
Kettlewell emerged from New Work rich. He’d taken home large bonuses every year that Kodacell had experienced growth—a better metric than turning an actual ahem profit—and he’d invested in a diverse portfolio that had everything from soybeans to software in it, along with real estate (oops) and fine art. He believed in the New Work, believed in it with every fiber of his being, but an undiverse portfolio was flat-out irresponsible.
The New Work crash had killed the net worth of a lot of irresponsible people.
Living in the Caymans got boring after a year. The kids hated the international school, scuba diving amazed him by going from endlessly, meditatively fascinating to deadly dull in less than a year. He didn’t want to sail. He didn’t want to get drunk. He didn’t want to join the creepy zillionaires on their sex tours of the Caribbean and wouldn’t have even if his wife would have stood for it.
A year after the New Work crash, he filed a 1040 with the IRS and paid them forty million dollars in back taxes and penalties, and repatriated his wealth to an American bank.
Now he lived in a renovated housing project on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, all upscale now with restored, kitschy window-bars and vintage linoleum and stucco ceilings. He had four units over two floors, with cleverly knocked-through walls and a spiral staircase. The kids freaking loved the staircase.
Suzanne Church called him from SFO to let him know that she was on her way in, having cleared security and customs after a scant hour. He found himself unaccountably nervous about her now, and realized with a little giggle that he had something like a crush on her. Nothing serious—nothing his wife needed to worry about—but she was smart and funny and attractive and incisive and fearless, and it was a hell of a combination.
The kids were away at school and his wife was having a couple of days camping with the girls in Yosemite, which facts lent a little charge to Suzanne’s impending visit. He looked up the AirBART schedule and calculated how long he had until she arrived at the 24th Street station, a brisk 20 minute walk from his place.
Minutes, just minutes. He checked the guest-room and then did a quick mirror check. His months in the Caymans had given him a deep tan that he’d kept up despite San Francisco’s grey skies. He still looked like a surfer, albeit with just a little daddy-paunch—he’d gained more weight through his wife’s pregnancies than she had and only hard, aneurysm-inducing cycling over and around Potrero Hill had knocked it off again. His jeans’ neat rows of pockets and Mobius seams were a little outdated, but they looked good on him, as did his Hawai’ian print shirt with its machine-screw motif.
Finally he plopped down to read a book and waited for Suzanne, and managed to get through a whole page in the intervening ten minutes.
“Kettlebelly!” she hollered as she came through the door. She took him in a hug that smelled of stale airplane and restless sleep and gave him a thorough squeezing.
She held him at arm’s length and they sized each other up. She’d been a well-preserved mid-forties when he’d seen her last, buttoned-down in a California-yoga-addict way. Now she was years older, and her time in Russia had given her a forest of smile-lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes. She had a sad, wise turn to her face that he’d never seen there before, like a painted Pieta. Her hands had gone a little wrinkly, her knuckles more prominent, but her fingernails were beautifully manicured and her clothes were stylish, foreign, exotic and European.
She laughed huskily and said, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Ouch,” he said. “I’m older and wiser, I’ll have you know.”
“It doesn’t show,” she said. “I’m older, but no wiser.”
He took her hand and looked at the simple platinum band on her finger. “But you’re married now—nothing wises you up faster in my experience.”
She looked at her hand. “Oh, that. No. That’s just to keep the wolves at bay. Married women aren’t the same kinds of targets that single ones are. Give me water, and then a beer, please.”
Glad to have something to do, he busied himself in the kitchen while she prowled the place. “I remember when these places were bombed-out, real ghettos.”
“What did you mean about being a target?”
“St Pete’s, you know. Lawless state. Everyone’s on the make. I had a bodyguard most of the time, but if I wanted to go to a restaurant, I didn’t want to have to fend off the dating-service mafiyeh who wanted to offer me the deal of a lifetime on a green-card marriage.”
“It’s another world, Landon. You know what the big panic there is this week? A cult of ecstatic evangelical Christians who ‘hypnotize’ women in the shopping malls and steal their babies to raise as soldiers to the Lord. God knows how much of it is true. These guys don’t bathe, and dress in heavy coats with big beards all year round. I mean, freaky, really freaky.”
“They hypnotize women?”
“Weird, yeah? And the driving! Anyone over the age of fifty who knows how to drive got there by being an apparat in the Soviet days, which means that they learned to drive when the roads were empty. They don’t signal, they straddle lanes, they can’t park—I mean, they really can’t park. And drunk! Everyone, all the time! You’ve never seen the like. Imagine a frat party the next day, with a lot of innocent bystanders, hookers, muggers and pickpockets.”
Landon looked at her. She was animated and vivid, thin—age had brought out her cheekbones and her eyes. Had she had a chin-tuck? It was common enough—all the medical tourists loved Russia. Maybe she was just well-preserved.
She made a show of sniffing herself. “Phew! I need a shower! Can I borrow your facilities?”
“Sure,” he said. “I put clean towels out in the kids’ bathroom—upstairs and second on the right.”
She came down with her fine hair slicked back over her ears, her face scrubbed and shining. “I’m a new woman,” she said. “Let’s go somewhere and eat something, OK?”
He took her for pupusas at a Salvadoran place on Goat Hill. They slogged up and down the hills and valleys, taking the steps cut into the steep sides, walking past the Painted Ladies—grand, gaudy Victorian wood-frames—and the wobbly, heavy canvas bubble-houses that had sprung up where the big quake and landslides had washed away parts of the hills.
“I’d forgotten that they had hills like that,” she said, greedily guzzling an horchata. Her face was streaked with sweat and flushed—it made her look prettier, younger.
“My son and I walk them every day.”
“You drag a little kid up and down that every day? Christ, that’s child abuse!”
“Well, he poops out after a couple of peaks and I end up carrying him.”
“You carry him? You must be some kind of superman.” She gave his bicep a squeeze, then his thigh, then slapped his butt. “A fine specimen. Your wife’s a lucky woman.”
He grinned. Having his wife in the conversation made him feel less at risk. That’s right, I’m married and we both know it. This is just fun flirting. Nothing more.
They bit into their pupusas—stuffed cornmeal dumplings filled with grilled pork and topped with shredded cabbage and hot sauce—and grunted and ate and ordered more.
“What are these called again?”
“Pupusas, from El Salvador.”
“Humph. In my day, we ate Mexican burritos the size of a football, and we were grateful.”
“No one eats burritos anymore,” he said, then covered his mouth, aware of how pretentious that sounded.
“Dahling,” she said, “burritos are so 2005. You must try a pupusa—it’s what all the most charming Central American peasants are eating now.”
They both laughed and stuffed their faces more. “Well, it was either here or one of the fatkins places with the triple-decker stuffed pizzas, and I figured—”
“They really do that?”
“The fatkins? Yeah—anything to get that magical 10,000 calories any day. It must be the same in Russia, right? I mean, they invented it.”
“Maybe for fifteen minutes. But most of them don’t bother—they get a little metabolic tweak, not a wide-open throttle like that. Christ, what it must do to your digestive system to process 10,000 calories a day!”
“Chacun a son gout,” he said, essaying a Gallic shrug.
She laughed again and they ate some more. “I’m starting to feel human at last.”
“It’s still mid-afternoon, but my circadian thinks it’s 2AM. I need to do something to stay awake or I’ll be up at four tomorrow morning.”
“I have some modafinil,” he said.
“Swore ‘em off. Let’s go for a walk.”
They did a little more hill-climbing and then headed into the Mission and window-shopped the North African tchotchke emporia that were crowding out the Mexican rodeo shops and hairdressers. The skin drums and rattles were laser-etched with intricate designs—Coca Cola logos, the UN Access to Essential Medicines Charter, Disney characters. It put them both in mind of the old days of the New Work, and the subject came up again, hesitant at first and then a full-bore reminisce.
Suzanne told him stories of the things that Perry and Lester had done that she’d never dared report on, the ways they’d skirted the law and his orders. He told her a few stories of his own, and they rocked with laughter in the street, staggering like drunks, pounding each other on the backs, gripping their knees and stomachs and doubling over to the curious glances of the passers-by.
It was fine, that day, Perry thought. Some kind of great sorrow that he’d forgotten he’d carried lifted from him and his chest and shoulders expanded and he breathed easy. What was the sorrow? The death of the New Work. The death of the dot-coms. The death of everything he’d considered important and worthy, its fading into tawdry, cheap nostalgia.
They were sitting in the grass in Dolores Park now, watching the dogs and their people romp among the robot pooper-scoopers. He had his arm around her shoulders, like war-buddies on a bender (he told himself) and not like a middle-aged man flirting with a woman he hadn’t seen in years.
And then they were lying down, the ache of laughter in their bellies, the sun on their faces, the barks and happy shouts around them. Their hands twined together (but that was friendly too, Arab men held hands walking down the street as a way of showing friendship).
Now their talk had banked down to coals, throwing off an occasional spark when one or the other would remember some funny anecdote and grunt out a word or two that would set them both to gingerly chuckling. But their hands were tied and their breathing was in sync, and their flanks were touching and it wasn’t just friendly.
Abruptly, she shook her hand free and rolled on her side. “Listen, married man, I think that’s enough of that.”
He felt his face go red. His ears rang. “Suzanne—what—” He was sputtering.
“No harm no foul, but let’s keep it friendly, all right.”
The spell was broken, and the sorrow came back. He looked for the right thing to say. “God I miss it,” he said. “Oh, Suzanne, God, I miss it so much, every day.”
Her face fell, too. “Yeah.” She looked away. “I really thought we were changing the world.”
“We were,” he said. “We did.”
“Yeah,” she said again. “But it didn’t matter in the end, did it? Now we’re older and our work is forgotten and it’s all come to nothing. Petersburg is nice, but who gives a shit? Is that what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, hang around Petersburg blogging about the mafiyeh and medical tourism? Just shoot me now.”
“I miss the people. I’d meet ten amazing creative geniuses every day—at least! Then I’d give them money and they’d make amazing stuff happen with it. The closest I come to that now is my kids, watching them learn and build stuff, which is really great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing like the old days.”
“I miss Lester. And Perry. Tjan. The whole gang of them, really.” She propped herself up on one elbow and then shocked him by kissing him hard on the cheek. “Thanks, Kettlebelly. Thank you so much for putting me in the middle of all that. You changed my life, that’s for sure.”
He felt the imprint of her lips glowing on his cheek and grinned. “OK, here’s an idea: let’s go buy a couple bottles of wine, sit on my patio, get a glow on, and then call Perry and see what he’s up to.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” she said. “That’s a very good one.”
A few hours later, they sat on the horsehair club-sofa in Kettlewell’s living room and hit a number he’d never taken out of his speed-dial. “Hi, this is Perry. Leave a message.”
“Perry!” they chorused. They looked at each other, at a loss for what to say next, then dissolved in peals of laughter.
“Perry, it’s Suzanne and Kettlebelly. What the hell are you up to? Call us!”
They looked at the phone with renewed hilarity and laughed some more. But by the time the sun was setting over Potrero Hill and Suzanne’s jet-lag was beating her up again, they’d both descended into their own personal funks. Suzanne went up to the guest room and put herself to bed, not bothering to brush her teeth or even change into her nightie.
<<< Back to Part 18
Continue to Part 20>>>
* * *
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.