The point always comes, no matter how hard I try to strategize and fend it off. Bets and I will be out to dinner with another couple from work, the kind of evening you put together because you want somebody to have your back at the office when things turn to shit. I’ll be talking the NFL draft or Sweet Sixteen with that night’s husband, and she’ll turn to the wife, her pealing tones enough to paralyze the whole dining room. “Have you heard the Good News?”
I have, over and over. I’m number one on Bets’ list for salvation, and that is fine with me. I like the promise of mercy and joy, and I want to be with Bets in the everlasting, where she will not feel obliged to share the Good News with every new face she greets. As it is, the UPS man runs away when Bets answers the door.
She doesn’t understand that you can do these things quietly. You can be the behind-the-scenes guy, the one who makes sure there’s enough mustard at the company picnic and that everybody’s kid gets an at-bat. That’s witnessing too.
“Your heavenly crown’s going to be a little skimpy,” Bets tells me.
“You can throw a couple of your extra jewels my way. You’ll have them to spare.” If I keep this up we’ll wind up in the bedroom, so you can see there are a number of up sides, as long as I can keep her away from the people I work with.
I’ve got a new V.P. now, still wet from Wharton, a nervous little whippet who sets up sensitivity retreats to teach us what we can and can’t say to each other. I’ve worked with Dan Fleischer for twenty-three years and don’t need a retreat to know what I can say to him. But we wind up in a room with big windows looking out on a river, talking about rights and personal space. Bets is at home, and has just bought a pale-blue nightie with a cut-out that I like. I miss the part when the V.P. tells us to split into small groups. Dan has to nudge me; I’m in his group.
“Remember,” the V.P. says from the front of the room, “this is about communication. Sometimes you can say things that are organizationally valuable in a small group. We’ll get your responses, find out what you all have to say that can help us work better together, and then we’ll announce the winner. Weekend in Chicago, people.”
Bets loves Chicago. I watch Dan rub his hands together theatrically while Bennett, a new guy from Receivable, says something about keeping stinky food out of the microwave. I stare at Dan until he stops with the stupid act. Ten years ago we played handball once a week, then had beers that we told ourselves we’d earned. We’d started at the firm in the same month, had walked the same corporate walk. Ahead of us, for a while, was a VP-accounts position that we didn’t talk about. There was no need for talk—I had the qualifications, I had the accounts, I had the ceiling shot.
Dan worked hard to make sure I wouldn’t find out about his conversation with HR, but I know all the same moves he knows. I know how to find out when a complaint’s been filed, and why. “Nagging, really, about religion. It gets pretty uncomfortable.” He wasn’t even attacking Bets. He was saying I was the one. Thinking about it one time I hit the ball so hard it cracked an overhead tile.
Dan didn’t get the position, but neither did I. Now we’re glaring at each other with Bennett in between us wondering why our little table has gotten so quiet. Finally Dan says, “My daughter is doing a lot better.”
“Was there a problem?”
“She has leukemia, but she’s better,” he says. “Tell your wife.”
This means that Bets has been checking my coworkers’ websites, though I’ve told her not to do that. Or she read one of the employee newsletters and found out about Dan’s daughter there. Stories about children affect her. She doesn’t think I know that she still prays, every day, for our own miracle, even though she’s 52 now and the miracle window has closed. Bets doesn’t think windows close. I know with God’s own certainty that she told Dan that God answers all prayers, and Dan only needed to have faith. Every day she’s been praying for Dan’s daughter, and now the girl is doing a lot better.
“I’m glad,” I tell him. “Sometimes things really do work out right.”
“Prayers can get answered,” he says softly, and I smile, holding up my empty hands. This company retreat is no place to be talking about prayers. He has to know that.
Into the silence between us he says, “So now I know my daughter will go to college. I just don’t know how I’m going to pay for it. You think I can get upstairs to start paying us overtime?”
“Not a chance,” I say.
“That’s not what your wife would say.”
“I’m going to get some water,” Bennett says to the air and leaves the table. Dan nods at him, then turns back. He and I hunker as if any second we’re going to wrestle each other.
“Do you remember when I brought Lucy to the office? She was little, maybe six. You sat her in your office chair and spun her around. She looked like she was about to puke, but she swore she liked it.”
This doesn’t sound like anything I’d do. Maybe Dan is fucking with me, but his eyes are bright with moisture.
“When her hair fell out she made a collage box that she called Old Me. She put her hair and her toys in it, and a lot of glitter. We told her that she didn’t have to put anything away, but she said that she was going to come back new. Isn’t there a Bible verse about this?”
I shake my head. He needs Bets, not me.
“Her hair grew back curly.” He smiles, an expression so awkward that his mouth looks broken. “I’m glad we had this opportunity to talk. I’ve wanted to. This was a little grace.”
“That’s exactly right,” I say, as uncomfortable as I’ve ever been in my life.
“Tell her I’m praying for her, too. For you both.” He puts his finger to his mouth—shhh—and nods. My mouth is pasty. When I get home, Bets and I are going to have to have a long talk. Bennett is coming back to the table, looking pleased. “Ready up, men. I just had a word with our leader.” He and Dan grin and fist-bump, then turn to me.
At the front of the room, Wharton is already talking again. “Good news! We have a winner.”