A.G.A.

pexels-photo-31044“So, what do you call this thing?”

“Call it?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t it have a name?”

The lounge was less than half full on a Tuesday night. All of the one- and two-cocktail drinkers had gone home at a reasonable hour. Besides Ed and Phil only the diehard regulars, a few couples, and the occasional stray alcoholic remained.

“No,” Ed replied. “It doesn’t have a name.”

“But…” Phil caught the waitress’ eye and touched his glass to let her know they wanted another round of martinis. “How about when you summon it, when you ‘call it forth,’ you know?”

Ed drained his glass. He squinted at Phil.

“This is what I’m telling you,” he said. “I don’t summon it, or call it. I don’t even know what it is.”

“But you said it’s a…”

“Yeah. I know what I said, but…”

“It sounds like some kind of superhero. Or anti-superhero. Is that the idea?”

“No.” Ed leaned forward. “Look. I want you to know, I never asked for this thing to happen. I could have lived my whole life and it would just never have occurred to me, right? So, I don’t light candles. I don’t send a message with a what-do-you-call-it, Ouija board. It isn’t like that.”

“Right,” said Phil. “But you said it was a what, exactly?”

“Not me. Betsy. She’s the one who acted like it was some kind of entity. She labeled it, gave it a category, whatever ‘it’ is. She was the one with the imagination, not me.”

“Okay, and what did she label it, again?”

“Betsy called it my ‘avenging guardian angel,’” Ed said in monotone. “Those are the words that she used. Not me.”

The men went silent when the waitress arrived with fresh martinis. Phil gave the blonde a generous tip and a wink before she moved on.

“I thought you and Betsy were…”

“Over,” Ed admitted. “Yeah. She packed up her knives and moved back to New York.”

“You could follow her, nothing stopping you. Betsy’s a Brooklyn girl at heart. Everybody knows that. You might like New York, too.”

“I like what I do for a living, Phil. Senior management jobs in this game are not that easy to come by. Betsy could’ve worked anywhere. A chef can always find work, any city. She worked here, didn’t she?”

“So…”

“She didn’t want to stay. She didn’t want to be with me. End of story.”

“Sorry, man,” Phil said. “Hey. Hey, cheers!”

They raised their glasses.

“Fuck women,” said Phil. “And if you can’t fuck ’em, to hell with ’em. Right?”

Ed sipped his martini. Across the room in the dusky half-light, their waitress leaned against the bar, poised and ready to start another round. The only window in the place was beveled at the edges, and too small to reveal more than figures rushing by on the busy street outside. Rain gave the shadowed bodies a sleek surface. They dashed by, coats shining like the dark feathers of nocturnal birds.

“Never mind about Betsy,” Phil said. “Sorry. I only mentioned her because of this thing we’re talking about. She called it an ‘avenging angel?’ She really said that? I mean, guardian angels, that’s so…”

“Woo-woo?”

“Yeah. No disrespect to the lady. But, yeah.”

“No, you’re right,” Ed told him. “Most people didn’t realize she was into that bullshit. Tarot, spirit guides, even astral projection. She was talking to a psychic when she decided to move back to New York. Said it was her destiny.”

“What a bitch. Uh, the psychic, not Betsy.”

“Wasn’t a woman, it was this guy with a shop on 1st Avenue, near the market.”

“No kidding! What the hell’s he doing telling another guy’s girlfriend to leave him?”

“Destiny, remember? You can’t fight it, apparently.”

“But look, Ed, telling another guy’s girl, practically a fiancée, almost his wife, to move to another city…”

“Yeah. I know. You’re right. Yeah.”

“I mean it’s the lowest. Right?”

“I don’t know,” Ed said. “I can think of worse things.”

“So this was the same guy who told her about the what’s it, the A.G.A.? That’s what I’m calling it. Sounds less loony.”

Ed grinned. He set his martini on the table and sat staring down at it.

“No,” he said. “It was just one of those things. We were, you know, we were in bed one Sunday. If you can picture what I’m saying.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

“Just, you know, watching something stupid on TV. Cartoons. I don’t remember. Joking around. A nice day.”

“Right,” said Phil.

“And I was saying something about Ted Donovan…”

“The designer you told me about, right, from Portland?”

“Yeah. I was just letting off steam, nothing serious: the way the guy keeps asking questions about basic stuff, and the way he sucks up to people at work. He’s too old to be there, really, and he ought to know it. That kind of thing.”

“Sure,” Phil said. “Sure.”

“All of a sudden Betsy gets this look and she says: ‘You better stop now.’ I thought she was sick of hearing about the office, the politics, the backstabbing. It was all pretty standard. I talked about it the same way she talked about the waiters at Chez Marlene. But she gave me this strange look.”

“Strange, like…?”

“I don’t know. Scared.”

“Scared?”

“Okay, maybe not scared. Concerned. Worried.”

“But she doesn’t even know the guy, right?”

“Right. Then, out of the blue, she says: ‘Do you realize every person you’ve talked about like this ended up having something bad happen to them?’”

Phil laughed. Ed gave him a sheepish grin.

“I know,” Ed said. “I know. It’s a crazy thing to say, right? It was on a Sunday. Raining as usual. We drank a glass of wine with breakfast in the morning, smoked a little. It was that kind of day. Also, I knew Betsy was seeing this psychic once a month, so I thought that was where it came from, the woo-woo talk. I laughed. I called her on it and she said no, this wasn’t from the psychic, and it wasn’t funny. This was something she had been thinking about for a while.”

“How long is a while?”

“She said it was the reason she went to the psychic in the first place.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Phil asked.

Ed held his glass and swirled the gin with his plastic toothpick and olive. He took a sip before he answered.

“She said she’d compiled a list, one day.”

“A list. Of…?”

“People I’d dropped. You know, not just unfriended online but actually stopped seeing or maybe started avoiding. I had reasons. Some of these people were jerks. They were people who, you know, trashed me in some way or screwed me over. People I disliked and bitched about.”

“Everybody could make a list like that,” said Phil. “Anybody.”

“Yeah,” Ed said. He hesitated. “Now, you have to understand, this is what Betsy pointed out to me. This is how she described what I think of as ordinary life events.”

“Granted. Sure. Grain of salt.”

“Right, but…”

Ed surveyed the dim room with its assortment of ragged salesmen, silent couples, and drunks. The waitress at the bar shifted her weight, ready to bring another round at the least signal.

“The thing is,” Ed said. “Every person on the list was somehow—messed up.”

“You mean they were mentally ill?”

“No,” Ed told him. “Not only that.” He leaned forward again. “Like my ex-girlfriend, Jasmine.”

“Oh boy,” Phil said. “Buddy, I’m sorry to criticize your taste but that bitch was bat-shit insane, okay? Anybody who uses her ex’s credit card number to buy flowers for his new girlfriend with a note saying you made her have an abortion… Jesus!”

“I know,” Ed said. “Yeah, I know.”

“So?”

“The thing is, Jasmine’s in the hospital now.”

“Oh, wow. Sorry. For what?” Phil asked.

“Cancer.”

“No shit!”

“It’s bad.” Ed told him. “Stage four. You know, I got a voice message from her mom a while back. She said Jasmine’s dying. It’s in her glands; it’s in her brain. She’s not going to make it.”

“Christ,” said Phil. “Sorry. I…”

“No, it’s okay. You didn’t know. I didn’t know until her mom called. Then I was going to send her flowers, but…”

“Yeah, that seems weird after the prank she pulled.”

“I know,” said Ed. “I didn’t want to imply anything with the flowers, like I was getting even. So I just sent her a card.”

“Jesus. Bad luck.”

“Betsy didn’t think it was luck. Well, she did when we first heard the news, but not after she wrote the list.”

“No? Oh. Right. The ‘avenging guardian angel.’” Phil laughed. Then he shook his head. “Women are crazy. Not all the time. They go crazy, then they normal out. It’s all about the estrogen. I read an article. Maybe she was at one of those points in her cycle…”

“Maybe,” said Ed. “I told her she was being silly and she let it slide. But the next morning, over coffee, she started telling me more about the list.”

“The list? Oh yeah, the people who…”

“Screwed me over. Yeah. There was Jack, this guy I knew at Fontana, the company where I worked before?”

“Okay.”

“Jack was this real truculent douche bag, broad, sharp looking, great suits, tossed the corporate lingo around and dropped names like nobody’s business.”

“Yeah?”

“Thing is, he acted like we were best friends. Not just co-workers but really tight, like we were college buddies or something, him and me ‘against the world’ kind of crap. Right up to the minute he told the people who interviewed me…”

“At the place where you work now, right? Big City?”

“Yeah. I used Jack as a reference because he insisted. He kept talking about how he had my back no matter what. Then he told HR at Big City I had personal issues.”

“Issues…”

“Vague yet insinuating. He didn’t come right out and commit slander, is what I’m saying. He was smooth about it, like he didn’t want to say anything, but he felt he ought to mention it. He felt an ‘obligation’ to warn them.”

“How do you know this?”

“What do you think? The head of HR told me.”

“That was lucky.”

“No doubt. I could have missed the job of a lifetime. I would never have known Jack was trashing me behind my back except I knew the gal in HR, I bought her lunch, and she let me read the email exchange. We had mutual friends. She knew Jack was lying. She just couldn’t figure out why.”

“Compulsive?”

“I don’t know, but I cursed that son of a bitch. I deleted him from my friend list as soon as I changed jobs. When I heard he was still talking about me, back at Fontana, I went ballistic.”

“Should have punched the guy.” Phil said quietly.

“I didn’t have to. I didn’t have a chance. A week later he drove his car off the South End Bridge into the bay.”

Phil gave Ed a wide-eyed look. Then he closed his mouth. The two men exchanged a solemn expression.

“He…?”

“Died. Drowned. Or, I guess he was dead before he hit the water. Hell, who knows? Maybe he was wide awake, screaming all the way down.”

Ed drained his glass. Phil followed, and then signaled the waitress.

“That’s…”

“Yeah,” said Ed.

“Did you know about it?”

“Well, sure. But, you know, people die, accidents happen, right? I didn’t think any more about it. I was sorry somebody I knew had to bite it like that, but I wasn’t going to his funeral after what he did. We were never really friends anyway. The guy was such a liar.”

“Yeah,” said Phil. “I hear you.”

The waitress delivered two fresh drinks and collected the empty glasses. She gave Phil a little smile when she picked up the bills and he told her to keep the change.

“You’re tipping on every round,” Ed said after the waitress left.

“Yeah,” Phil said, following the blonde with his gaze. “She’s worth it, don’t you think? Look at her, anticipating our every whim. This is outstanding service.”

They laughed lightly and lifted their glasses. Phil turned his attention back to Ed’s story.

“Okay, so two people you know came to a bad end. Okay, look, I can top that. Most people can.”

“There was also the barista at Café Carafe, the one who never got my order right.”

“Killing offense.”

“Go ahead and laugh,” Ed told him. “The guy’s in a coma.”

“What?”

Across the room the waitress picked up a new tray of drinks intended for another table. She whispered something to the bartender, who glanced at Phil and Ed before busying himself by wiping down the bar.

“He was on his bicycle when it happened. That day I told Betsy I was definitely going to complain to the manager because I was fed up. All I wanted was a mocha Frappuccino with soy, right? Same order, every time. He never got it right. Milk, vanilla, always something wrong. The person ahead of me never failed to get what he wanted, and the person after. Not me.”

“I would’ve quit going there,” Phil said. “It’s bullshit, getting personal behind a fucking espresso counter. Who does he think he is?”

The bartender was looking at them. Phil gave him a smile, but the guy stared without acknowledging it while he wiped the bar with a wet rag, making slow, even circles.

“Café Carafe is right across the street from the office,” Ed explained. “Everybody goes there. Betsy knew people who worked there. The next coffee shop is two blocks away. And I kept thinking the guy would get fired. Anyway. The last time I went there I was with my boss. We were in crunch mode, again. I was working twelve-, fourteen-hour days for three weeks straight. And I was trying to impress my boss. I invited him out for coffee, so I could get chummy with him and find out how I was doing. But then, just like all the other times, the barista screwed up the order.”

“At least he was consistent.”

“What can I say?” Ed stared down at his drink. “I lost it. Right there in the coffee shop, I just exploded. I started screaming at this moron at the top of my lungs. I call him about ten different highly inappropriate things. And I look over at my boss and he’s shaking his head at me. He starts telling me to calm down, you know, it’s okay, it’s just coffee.” Ed looked at Phil. “That was it, the limit. That made it, like, ten times worse. If the fucking barista had been on my side of that counter, I would have taken his head off. Here’s my boss thinking I’m unstable or something, and how do you explain a thing like that?”

They sat in silence for a moment. Phil took a drink. Ed watched him.

“See?”

“See what?” Phil asked.

“You’re thinking it, too: I over-reacted. You think I was wrong. It was just a bad week.”

Phil was silent.

“Anyway,” Ed told him. “We got out of there, and I was going to call the manager to complain and get this guy fired. That was my plan. But the next day I saw his picture in the paper. One of those cheerful headshots where you know something terrible happened? I read the story over a shot of vodka at the kitchen sink.

“It was raining when the shift ended. The barista was heading northeast on his bike toward Montlake when he hit a puddle. Turned out to be a pothole. Flipped his bike and he went flying into the tail end of a FedEx truck.”

“Shit.”

“That’s what I said.”

“I mean… Shit. Shit! That’s just… That sucks.”

There was a flurry of movement outside the beveled window, a flash of something exquisitely dark and shimmering in the rain. Phil flinched.

“Sorry,” he told Ed. “For a second I thought somebody was running at the glass.”

Ed grinned and nodded. Phil took another sip of his drink.

“And then there was my boss…” Ed began.

“Your boss? Don’t tell me he’s in a coma, too.”

“No,” said Ed. “Turned out I was right. He really thought I was losing it that day in the coffee shop. We had a couple of talks about it, and he told me to enroll in this anger management program.”

“For yelling at a barista?”

“I know. That’s so lame, right? But he was serious. Okay, he also wanted to bring in a couple of his friends from a company on the east side. He kept talking these guys up and telling me about the projects they worked on, and how they’d all spent two years in Shanghai with this other bastard he likes. I figured he was looking around the office for two people he could kick out. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be concerned.”

“You said you knew the gal in HR.”

“Yeah, well, I meant I was doing a great job. But now the boss had tagged me with this anger management bullshit, I was a target. It was a control thing, too. Next time I raised my voice there would be consequences.”

“Jesus.”

“Right,” Ed agreed. “I was in a hell of a mood that weekend. Spent two days griping to Betsy, who did not want to hear it, okay? I went to work Monday expecting bad news. As soon as I get there, my boss’s boss stops by my cubicle to have a little chat. We leave the building and take a walk around the block. He buys me coffee at Café Carafe, and the new barista gets my mocha Frappuccino with soy on the first try. We share a couple of jokes, and the boss’ boss tells me they’re adding a few more duties to my job description, plus a pay increase and a bonus for my hard work.”

“Wow. Because…”

Ed failed to suppress a smile.

“My boss got caught on a security video banging a nineteen-year-old intern. The company’s giving this girl a cash incentive to sign a non-disclosure agreement and go away.”

“No shit!”

“Right.”

“But this guy, your boss, he’s alive?”

“If you want to call it that,” said Ed. “He’ll never get a recommendation for another job like that one. He’s over. He’s probably working the night shift at McDonald’s.”

“Fries and nineteen-year-olds.”

“Yeah. And the gal in HR says he caught something from the intern, but she wouldn’t say what, so you know it’s bad. All in all, a very expensive ten-minute fuck.”

They sat quietly for a moment. Then Phil asked, “How many…? Um, how many names were there, exactly…?”

“On Betsy’s list?”

“Yeah.”

“Eleven.”

Now Phil’s mouth stayed open for several seconds.

“Eleven?”

“Well, she went all the way back to middle school. Obsessive with details, my Betsy.”

“Christ,” said Phil. “What happened in middle school?”

“Nothing,” Ed told him. “Really. It’s nothing. This is a part of it that gets highly speculative, in my opinion.”

“Isn’t all of it speculative?”

“Sure, sure. You can believe this stuff or not. You can call it crazy.”

There was another swift, oblique movement beyond the window. Phil blinked when a spray of water hit the glass.

“So, in middle school…” Phil prompted.

Ed rolled his eyes. He gazed at the window and said, “There was a kid named Swan. Arnie Swan, perfect name for a geek. Right? He took plenty of shit for it. He sat behind me in two classes, and he was always copying my work. Nobody else noticed, but I knew he was there, every day, stealing the answers, copying everything I did. He was this gawky little chicken neck, and nobody liked him. I didn’t like him. He followed me around. I’d see him there, kind of hovering like a shadow. So I told him one day: ‘Watch out on your way home, dummy.’ Not that I planned anything. I wasn’t a bully. I just wanted him to worry about it a little bit. I thought maybe it would keep him off my back.”

“Don’t tell me somebody beat him up on his way home.”

“Nobody knows. Nobody ever saw the kid again. It was on the news and stuff, and the police asked around. They came to school and gave us a lecture on personal safety.”

“You didn’t say anything?”

“Like what? ‘Hey officer, I told Swanny to watch his back the same day he disappeared…’ Phil, why would I say anything? Kids run away. Kids disappear. Happens every day. The first time I thought of it again was years later. I told Betsy the story, and you see what she came up with. If she hadn’t made a list, it would never have crossed my mind again.”

Phil was quiet for a moment.

“You said there were eleven names. Eleven people.”

“Right, but why go into it? Sure, sure. The high school Algebra teacher who flunked me was murdered by her husband, and the girl who turned me down for the prom was gang raped that night. The list goes on, but, like I said, shit happens all the time. It’s eleven if you include the guy who went to HR and demanded my parking space because he had a limp and he said he needed a spot closer to the ramp.”

“You yelled at the guy?”

“No,” said Ed with a sneer. “Of course not. I mean, not really. I said he was a freak and he was in my way. I only said that to Betsy.”

“What did she say?”

“She said it made her feel sad.”

“Huh.”

“She didn’t even know the guy. He was slow, he had trouble talking, and he had a terrible temper. You wouldn’t expect that, in a disabled person. They’re supposed to be so positive and ‘rise above it all,’ right? But this guy would get frustrated because he couldn’t get the right words out or something, and he’d be furious! His face would turn red and his arms would shake. It was kind of funny.”

“Was he a programmer?” Phil asked.

“No. Hell, no! He was on some special work program. He sorted mail and delivered it and he ran the copy machine. Can you believe it? The copy machine operator wanted my parking space!”

Phil studied Ed’s face for a moment. Then he asked, “So, what happened to him?”

Ed grinned. He tapped the rim of his martini glass with his toothpick.

“He choked to death on a bagel in the cafeteria.”

Ed slurped down the last of his drink. Phil watched him and then scanned the room. The bartender was staring in their direction again.

“He choked to death, like, right there?” Phil asked. “Didn’t that seem strange?”

“Definitely. People choke. It’s a given. Anybody in food service ought to know the Heimlich maneuver, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” said Phil. “I guess so, but what I meant was…”

“Don’t you like your drink?” Ed asked.

Phil took a final sip. He nodded. “Great,” he said. “Great martinis here.”

“You want another round?”

“Oh boy, you know,” said Phil. “I should actually be getting home.”

“No.”

“Yeah, I know. It sucks. I’ve got this presentation tomorrow…”

“Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t let it get to you,” Ed said. His brow was furrowed and he gazed at Phil over the dregs of their last drink.

“What do you mean?” Phil said. He smiled but the corners of his mouth quivered ever so briefly. Outside the window, on the darkened street, the rain was coming down in torrents.

“I should buy one last round,” said Ed. “Come on.”

“No. Don’t worry about it.”

They looked away from one another.

“Well, if that’s how it is. Thanks for listening. Ever since Betsy left, I’ve been spending too much time alone. Thinking too much.”

“That’s natural.”

“Thinking stupid thoughts. Going through stuff.”

“It’s normal,” Phil said. “Everybody does that.”

“I mean her stuff.”

Phil looked up from the bills he had fanned out across the tabletop as a final tip for the waitress.

“Her stuff?”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “She forgot her cell phone.”

“Ha! Women!” Phil laughed. It was an abrupt, barking sound. He wasn’t smiling.

“Actually,” Ed said. “I stole it before she left for the airport.”

Phil counted the money and put his wallet away. “Why?” He asked with his eyes averted. “Why would you do that?”

“So I could see who she was screwing. Why else would I do it?”

Ed’s eyes glistened like beetles in the half-light. Phil considered Ed’s face and then the table. Condensation dripped from the martini glasses, forming tiny pools on each side of the bills he had laid down.

“You’re going through a rough time,” Phil said. “You probably think all kinds of things after a breakup. Don’t let your imagination mess with you.”

Ed picked up a paper napkin and dropped it on the table. It puckered and sank as it soaked up the condensation.

“You know, Phil,” he said. “One of the reasons Betsy left me was because I don’t have any imagination.”

“No?”

“Nope. None. I’m not an artist like you, or Betsy. When people screw me over, all I do is think of the worst thing that could happen to them. And it happens. No imagination involved. No ‘summoning.’ No candles. It just happens.”

Phil licked his lips. He glanced across the room at the bar, where the waitress and the bartender stood watching him. Their expressions were blank.

“Ed, old buddy,” he said. “That’s kind of crazy. You know? The whole thing is pretty crazy.” Phil rose to leave. He wiped his hands on his trousers.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Ed said. “Everybody lies, but numbers reveal the truth. That’s what Betsy told me. And she was right! Thirteen people are fucked, all thanks to me and my lack of imagination.”

“You said eleven. On the list Betsy came up with, you said there were eleven…”

“That wasn’t including Betsy,” Ed said. “Betsy, who by now is lying face-up on her kitchen floor in Brooklyn with a blade in her abdomen, one of those full-tang knives, the kind she took such good care of and handled so well.”

“Betsy…?” Phil said. His face was quite pale.

Beyond the window the street had gone pitch black. There was so little sound. Only the wet whoosh of traffic and the murmuring of strangers huddled under umbrellas in the darkness.

“So that’s twelve, old buddy,” Ed said with a smile. “Betsy makes twelve, and then, of course—you. All I can say is, I hope she was worth it. I really do.”

 

— S.P. Miskowski

 

“A.G.A.” originally appeared in Supernatural Tales 21, edited by David Longhorn.

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