Back at the store, Tom did not stay to help the others out. After he hung up the phone he walked out to the area behind the counter. He surveyed the rows of shelves, which had not been tipped over. He felt lousy and relieved at the same time. Everything had worked out about as well as he had a right to hope for, but Julie’s words had still been painful. Why did she have to be so cruel?
“Hey, boss. What’s up with Julie?” asked Sandy, coming up on his right.
“Not coming in,” said Tom. “Not tonight. Not ever, actually.” He was looking down at the glass display counter. Satisfied, at any rate, that it hadn’t been kicked in.
“Wow,” said Sandy. She didn’t say anything else, having a pretty good idea about what had happened. She did a good job of holding back a smirk, although her efforts were lost on Tom, who was staring down at the counter and wiping off some non-existent grime.
“Yup. It looks like you guys are on your own tonight. I’m headed home myself. It should be pretty slow, actually, being a holiday weekend and all. You can handle it.”
He’d only just decided this, but it seemed like the right thing to do. They would probably gossip about it the rest of the night, but that was better than having them looking him up and down all night long. He’d grab another movie to watch after finishing The Vivisection of Vera, something Helen would like. A nice quiet night at home, that was all he wanted.
Still, he took the long way around, taking as long as he could on his drive home. He was more comfortable in his car than he was at home.
When he got back to the condo he yelled, “Honey, I’m home!” He meant it this time, and said it without a hint of irony. He hadn’t done that for a while, but this was a special occasion. He’d fulfilled his mission, more or less.
“I’m back here!” yelled Helen from somewhere down the hall. “You’re back kind of early, aren’t you?”
He found her in the study, looking over the website. He still found it funny to catch her pouring over the thumbnail photos of all the girls on the site, as if it were something other than business for her.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t really feel like sticking around work. It was kind of slow. And after taking care of that business . . .”
She closed down a couple of windows, transitioning between the web browser and Dreamweaver with a skill that in a few hand movements revealed years of experience.
“Don’t you ever get tired of looking at all those women?” he asked, leaning in through the doorway.
“Jeez, I don’t even notice them anymore,” she said, clicking through a couple of frames to check the traffic numbers again.
“Well, don’t mind me.”
“I don’t mind you. Not at all. That’s why we’re going to try something different.’
“Aren’t you worried about the money? We’ll miss the money.”
It’s funny how conversations between loved ones are repeated, streamlined a little more each time so that they can eventually be reiterated in a couple of key words. Helen turned around in the swivel chair, knocking over a couple of big, paperback computer books in the process.
“Money isn’t everything. We’ll keep some of it going as long as we need to. We don’t need it that bad. And what do you want to be known for? Porn? Or something better, like all those movies you’ve been watching over the years.”
“Yeah, well, speaking of which, I brought a couple home for us to watch tonight. I was going to go and finish the one I was watching this afternoon.”
Helen leaned over in the chair and picked the manual up off the floor, grunting as she put it back on the desk. “Sounds good to me. Give me a couple of more minutes here and I’ll be out in a bit.”
Tom went back out to the living room and turned on the television again. He surfed through the channels for a while, not really wanting to watch the movie as much as he thought he did. The television shows moved so much more quickly. Even a horror flick like The Vivisection of Vera took effort by comparison. He started out by taking five to seconds on each channel: cable news, financial news, Headline News, the Cartoon Network, shopping network, another shopping network. After a minute or so of this he just held down the button and watched each channel for a split second. He felt dizzy after going through about a hundred channels this way.
Helen came out after about twenty minutes and found him watching a panel discussion on C-Span.
“Getting political, are you?”
“Getting bored, actually. This seemed like a good match. I guess I don’t feel like watching the movie after all. Couldn’t care less what happens to Vera.”
“Let’s go out then. We’ll get an early dinner and then try to meet up with Roger and some of the others downtown. They’re always good for a couple of laughs. You look like you could use some of that.”
“Yeah, maybe. What sort of food do you feel like?”
“I was thinking of that big Seafood Salad over at the usual.”
“Oof. I don’t know. Too close to work.”
“What’s wrong with work?”
“Nothing. I was just there.”
“Well, no one from work will be at Queequeg’s now.” She looked at her watch. “You’re safe for a couple of hours yet. I’ll call Roger now, in fact, so he can meet us there. Besides, you like that chowder in the bread bowl. That’s just what you need right now.”
Tom frowned for a couple of seconds in contemplation.
“Okay,” said Tom, and turned off the television. “You sold me with the bread bowl.”