About a month after Challenger blew up, Wendell Troup told me his wife was trying to poison him.
Understand, we were all feeling a little rattled. Some of us had been in charge of checking the range-safety systems on the rocket boosters. Some of us had been combing over the liquid oxygen and hydrogen lines on the external fuel tank. Some of us—guys like me—had been double-and triple-checking the 31,000 thermal-protection tiles that covered the outside of the orbiter. The people who inspected the body flaps and elevons, the people who maintained the aft control thrusters, even the people who inflated the tires and washed the cabin windows had been involved in the incident. You didn’t have to be the man who’d given the okay to launch on that cold Tuesday morning to feel responsible.
Wendell was my supervisor. His job was to oversee and sign off on every aspect of the Thermal Protection System, from delivery and unpacking to labeling and installation. I won’t say he was any better or any worse at his job than I was at mine. He did what he was paid to do. Some days he took pride in it; other days he complained that he was superfluous to the whole process. We got to know each other on our lunch breaks, sometimes grabbed a beer after work, teased each other about our accents (he was from Chattanooga; I was from Boston). We played racquetball now and then, watched a few football games together, got to know each other’s wives.
The more serious Wendell was, the more he overenunciated his words, so that he sounded like he was talking to foreigners. And he was the kind of guy who was always talking—to himself, if there was no one else to listen. The guys in our department called him the Yacker behind his back. Unless whatever he was going on about was work-related, they’d say, “Oh, really?” or “No kidding?” and then beat it as soon as they could. I stuck around and listened because I felt sorry for him, and because, in his way, he could be amusing—a step up from the humdrum conversations the rest of the guys were churning out all day. Wendell could be telling me about how he’d unclogged a shower drain in his house with fishing line and a gasket coil, and I would give him my full attention.
“I’m telling you, Liquid Plumber is a joke, man. It’s invented by plumbers who want you to feel like you’ve tried everything and need an actual plumber. Meanwhile, the means to fix the problem are sitting right there in your house. Look, you can use a gasket coil for anything you want. I’ve got one designated for clogs, nothing else. Do you think I’m not going to use a gasket coil just because it wasn’t designed to go down a drain?”
I hadn’t thought any such thing. I wasn’t sure I knew what a gasket coil was. But sometimes I egged him on, just for my own amusement. “Well, now, Wendell, the EPA has issued a report about gasket coils and drain safety.”
He’d fall for it every time. Get more wound up, more enunciated. “The EPA? Let me tell you something, friend: There isn’t an Ex-Lax patty big enough to unclog the level of stupidity at the EPA.”
And so on.
Wendell was enthusiastic about being at odds with the world. He was occasionally crude in his descriptions. And, in specific and maybe even deliberate ways, he was a slob.
For example, he used Brylcreem to tame his hair but always left streaks of it in there—visible, unblended. He shaved every day and yet always had a single long whisker or patch of whiskers sprouting out from his jaw, and he sometimes came to work with shaving cream stuck to his Adam’s apple. He flossed his teeth after every meal and sometimes on a whim, right in the middle of an inspection, but he never cleaned his glasses, which looked felted with dust when they caught the sunlight. Even on the hottest days he kept his sweat-stained shirt collar buttoned and his tie snugly knotted, but half the time, after visiting the men’s room, he’d forget to zip his fly.
His wife, Loretta, was more refined. She looked just as put together when you ran into her at the grocery store or the mall as she did at one of their cocktail parties. Her face rested in a pleasant-enough expression, but when she smiled she had that quick, slightly irritated brightness of the not so happily married. That was my take on it, anyway. Her eyes were sad and pretty.
Loretta worked part-time as the school nurse at the elementary school and part-time as a volunteer at the local animal shelter. She delivered Meals on Wheels to the elderly two days a week and, as a hobby, made wallets and drink cozies out of vintage denim. In the realm of possibilities, I could imagine her one day becoming a born-again, or an Amway guru. But I couldn’t imagine her trying to poison Wendell. When he first told me about it, I responded as diplomatically as I could while still trying to sound like a trusted confidant.
We were sitting on a bench not far from the Vehicle Assembly Building, facing the Crawlerway that stretched out through the marsh to LC-39, where Challenger had gone up. I was done eating and was watching an egret with an enormous wingspan circle overhead.
Wendell was eyeing his sandwich. Our lunch break was over, we were going to be late getting back, but it didn’t matter. There were no thermal-protection tiles to install or inspect.
Columbia was supposed to be in orbit at that very moment, following Halley’s Comet around, but the mission had been canceled. So had the other thirteen shuttle missions scheduled for that year, and the ten scheduled for the year after that. We weren’t saying it out loud but we were all waiting—hoping—to be reassigned.
Wendell dropped what was left of his sandwich into the brown paper bag in his lap.
“You don’t know Loretta,” he said. “She’s got a devious side to her.”
“Ha,” I said. “Devious. Don’t we all?”
“I mean, really devious. Crazy devious. Nobody sees it but me.”
“Okay, let’s say she wants to poison you. She doesn’t, but let’s say she does. Why in the world would she want to do that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Wendell said, worming an index finger into his ear. “The life insurance? The equity? Maybe she just can’t stand me anymore.” He rubbed his finger on his pant leg and then wadded the bag up, sandwich and all. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, she’s crazy and I’m onto her.”
She’s not crazy, I thought; you’re crazy. But I wasn’t supposed to have any opinion of Wendell’s wife that didn’t start and end with Wendell. My loyalties, at least on the surface, lay with him. I asked him what brought this on—not the poisoning, which I wasn’t buying, but his suspicion of it.
“Get this,” he said. “Sunday afternoon, I’m in the den minding my own business, watching Wide World of Sports . And here comes Loretta with this big bowl of vanilla ice cream in her hands. ‘That’s a lot of ice cream,’ I say. And she says the whole thing’s for me. Now, when’s the last time I had dessert in the middle of the afternoon? Never. When I was six, maybe.”
“So the murder weapon is ice cream,” I said. “Death by ice cream.”
“Would you listen? I tell her thanks, but I don’t want any. And she says she already put it in the bowl. So I say, ‘Then you eat it,’ and she says she already had some. Now, when was the last time she had dessert in the middle of the day?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not really up on Loretta’s eating habits.”
“Probably not since she was six,” he said. “But there she is, holding this ice cream out for me to take. So I took it, and I ate some of it. And she sat down right there on the couch and watched me eat it.”
“It tasted like metal.”
I just looked at him.
“Metal’s a dead giveaway,” he said.
“Maybe you imagined it.”
“Who eats ice cream and imagines metal? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe it was old,” I said. “You know, freezer burn.”
“Freezer burn tastes like cardboard, anybody knows that.”
“Then maybe you have a loose filling.”
“And maybe you’re the wrong person to be telling this to. Look, I’m trying to share something important here, man.”
I spotted the egret again—or a different egret, this one gliding along without even flapping, like he had a propeller attached to his beak—and I thought about what Wendell had said. I wasn’t sure how many friends he had other than me, or, even if he had a hundred friends, how many of them would have sat listening to such nonsense without making fun of him. But he was right about one thing, at least: I was the wrong person to be telling this to.
I’m a tremendous liar. I mean, I’m very good at it. That said, these things are true:
When I was seven, a commercial airline pilot visited our school, talked about his job, and then went around the room and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Every boy in my class said he wanted to be a pilot, except me. I told him I wanted to be a lion tamer. I’d never thought about it before, didn’t care about it one way or another, but that’s what came out of my mouth. The pilot told me I was a brave little boy and wished me luck.
When I was eighteen, I wanted to move to Alaska and live in a cabin and raise huskies. I wanted to hitchhike across the United States, live in Belize, live on Koh Samui. I wanted to be the next Rodger Ward.
When I was twenty-five, I proposed to Renee, my future wife, by accident. I’d meant the question to be theoretical, Renee heard it as literal, and I went with it to save face.
When we were both thirty-six and had decided two kids were enough, no more for us, we inadvertently conceived another child. We love Teddy, and we wouldn’t trade anything for his presence in our lives, but he wasn’t part of the plan. Also, he was the reason I couldn’t finally trade our station wagon in for something a little more sporty. I think about that every time he smarts off to me, which, now that he’s eleven, is at least twice a day.
When Renee and I were both forty-four and approaching our nineteenth wedding anniversary, I got it into my head that she was having an affair. She’d made a new friend at work, some woman named Suzie, and she started having dinner with Suzie once a week—a “girls night out,” as she put it. But on one of those nights when they were supposed to be having dinner, Suzie called the house, asking for her. “I thought she was with you,” I said into the phone, and Suzie said no, they’d talked about getting coffee or dinner sometime but they’d never managed to make it happen. Would I tell Renee she’d called? Yes, I said, but I never gave Renee the message. Instead, I steeped myself in suspicion. Felt cuckolded. Felt foolish. And then, flipping that on its head for no good reason, I began to feel empowered.
When I was forty-five, Loretta Troup and I locked eyes at a picnic. Specifically, the NASA Efficiency, Morale & Welfare Gathering at Kars Park. Nothing happened that day other than that I made certain we were standing next to each other during the horseshoe tournament—which Wendell was entered in, took very seriously, and won. But at their next cocktail party, I cornered her in the living room and said out of the blue, “There’s something here, isn’t there?”
“Where?” Loretta asked. She moved her glass back and forth in the space between us. “Here?”
She rolled her eyes. “Ha. Maybe.”
Two weeks later, at my suggestion, Renee and I hosted our own little cocktail party, and I invited the Troups. During an impromptu and unnecessary tour I gave Loretta of our one-story ranch house, while we were in the bedroom of my eldest daughter, who was off at college, I was working up my nerve to ask her if there was still something there when she leaned in and kissed me.
And so there I was at forty-six, in Florida, sitting on a bench next to Wendell, a year into sleeping with his wife, a month after he and I had taken part in sending seven people to their deaths out over the Atlantic, listening to him tell me that Loretta was trying to poison him and pretending I wasn’t a heel, a cheat, and a traitor—which, when you think about it, is a far cry from living in Alaska, driving race cars, and taming lions.
Wendell told me plenty of stories about Loretta—all of them revolving around his suspicions that she’d grown tired of their marriage, that she’d fallen out of love with him, and, now, that she was trying to feed him poison one meal at a time. Loretta had little to say about Wendell. That seemed appropriate enough—I certainly wasn’t chatty with her on the subject of Renee—and it occurred to me after one of our early-evening rendezvous in the elementary school infirmary that I was always the one who brought Wendell up.
“Does he seem different to you lately?” I asked her. I didn’t mention the poisoning thing. I wasn’t sure Wendell had told anyone else, and if she brought it back to him, I’d be pegged as the source.
She was checking herself in the medicine cabinet mirror. “Different how?”
“I don’t know. Like— more of what he normally is?”
“Wendell is Wendell,” she said. “He’ll always be Wendell.”
I was standing next to her, waiting to use the mirror. She didn’t like meeting in motels, preferred the sequestered privacy of the infirmary with its narrow bed—just a cot, really, with a foam mattress covered by a sheet she would change when we were finished—and once it was over she was always eager to leave. Postcoitus, she was anything but affectionate. “He’s an odd guy,” I said, re-tucking my shirt.
“You’re one to talk. Can we get out of here?”
“Yeah, can I just—” I gestured toward the mirror.
She stepped aside.
As I combed my hair, I thought about how an affair can turn into a microcosm of whatever you’re trying to escape. Surely I was not the first person to have that thought.
What did other men and women do once the realization hit? Find a third affair? Return, hangdogged, to square one? Loretta was holding her purse. I wanted to talk about Wendell; I was a little worried about him, in fact. But what I said was, “So I’m odd, huh? I don’t think of myself as odd.”
“Please. You’re the fussiest person I’ve ever met.”
“I’m not fussy. How am I fussy?”
“You’re obsessed with your appearance, for one thing. How many times can you part your goddamn hair?”
I put my comb away. She reached for the door.
During dinner that night, there was an argument between Tania and Teddy about which show was better, Murder, She Wrote or The A-Team . Renee asked them if it wasn’t possible that both shows could be considered okay by different people, and Teddy said that would be fine if some of those people were retarded.
“What about Dad?” Tania asked, looking at me.
There was nothing sarcastic in the question; Tania wasn’t the smart-mouth; she was the sweet, even-keeled one. Tracy, who was away at college, was the mopey one. And then there was Teddy.
“Dad doesn’t really like either one of those shows,” I said.
“What’s your all-time favorite, then?” Tania asked. “Like, if they were going to ban every show in history except one, what would it be?”
“I don’t know. Something classic,” I said. “ Sea Hunt .”
“Is Dad maybe a little brain-damaged?” Teddy asked.
Renee snapped at him, threatened to send him to his room. He stuffed a bite of meatloaf into his mouth.
“I also like Riptide ,” I said, reaching for something a little more current.
This, for some reason, inspired Teddy to drop his head to one side and slap the backs of his hands together, letting the meatloaf fall from his mouth. Renee sent him to his room.
I thought about the sports car I didn’t own. I thought about how terrible it was that I was thinking about that, and how decent it was of Renee to defend me, but how she wasn’t meeting my eyes now. And how she really hadn’t been defending me; she’d just been scolding Teddy. And how she’d maybe cheated on me, and how I was cheating on her. And how my life had had a shape once, and then a different shape after that, and how now it had no discernible shape at all.
Florida isn’t built for cold. That’s why, during the harder winters, pythons roll up dead in the Everglades and iguanas drop out of trees in Monroe County. It’s why an orange tree laced with icicles makes for an exotic, even beautiful photograph in the newspaper, but it also makes for a dead orange tree. The temperature had dropped to eighteen degrees the night before the launch, and it was only ten degrees higher than that by morning. None of us were prepared for it. Some of us didn’t even own coats. The students at Merritt Island High School weren’t given a choice, Tania later told me; they were all led out to the football field just before lunch and corralled into the north-facing bleachers on the home side so that they could watch the historic event. (TISP, it was called. The Teacher in Space Project—touted by Reagan, sought after by 11,000 applicants and filled by one: a brave, ambitious, and unlucky young woman from New Hampshire.) Somewhat closer to the launch site, Wendell and I were holding Styrofoam cups of coffee, wearing sunglasses, shivering in our windbreakers. The cold was all anyone could talk about. How the mission had already been delayed several times because of the weather. How there had never been a shuttle launched in temperatures this low. How fucking cold it was. There were icicles all over the launchpad, we heard. Icicles all the way up the tower and across the catwalk.
The countdown started.
I had surprised my family with our first VCR the previous Christmas, then had decided I didn’t like the idea of renting movies from the one video store that had opened upon the island. All those rental tapes going in and out of strangers’ machines, and then going into ours, seemed unwise to me. Renee and the kids thought I was being silly, but I told them the VCR was delicate. I showed them the new, blank tapes I’d bought, explained to them how to use the timer, told them we could tape any show we wanted without having to compromise the system. “Well!” Teddy said in a fake British accent, “we certainly wouldn’t want to compromise the system!”
He’d set the timer before leaving for school that morning. He and Tania and Renee were all watching the tape when I got home. They asked me to watch it with them, asked me what it had looked like, up close, but I told them I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to talk about it.
That night after they’d all gone to bed, I sat on the couch clutching the remote, and I watched it over and over again.
Seventy-three seconds between liftoff and explosion. Viewed forward and back, forward and back, the breakup began to look like a flower blooming in a time-lapse nature film.
The solid rocket boosters began to look like a divining rod made of smoke.
The cloud that had just been a ship—a beautiful, streamlined, carefully put-together ship—began to look like a long-tendrilled jellyfish hanging in the sky.
And then it was done looking like anything.
Four months after it happened, three months after Wendell first told me about his Loretta suspicions, the Troups held their annual Memorial Day gathering. Their house was nicer than ours in that it was two stories and had a garage instead of a carport. But inside, it was ramshackle. Dusty. Cluttered with magazines and newspapers, a seam in the hall carpet repaired with duct tape, the dining room table taken over by Loretta’s sewing machine and Wendell’s jigsaw puzzles. Because of her work at the animal shelter, their home was the last refuge for unclaimed cats and dogs—the rattling, ghost-eyed ones too old for most people to get excited about. That day, there were four cats roaming the floors and one ancient, shivering Chihuahua. “That’s Urine Andropov,” Wendell said, pointing to the dog as I was picking something—a hair, maybe—out of my drink. “He gives Hubba Bubba a run for her money.”
Hubba Bubba, I knew from the previous party, was a tabby ballooned with tumors. Urine Andropov was a more recent arrival. I didn’t care about the pets, nor did I care about Wendell’s theories on how their personalities interacted. I always regretted coming to these parties. But Renee wouldn’t go to them—she was allergic to cats—and it was hard for me to pass up an opportunity to see Loretta. Wendell stuck to the den, for the most part, where his framed jigsaw puzzles hung crooked on the walls. Loretta, playing hostess, roamed.
An hour or so after I arrived, I caught her alone in the kitchen, arranging deviled eggs on a tray.
“Hi,” I said, patting her on the back.
“I’m just saying hello.”
“Hello,” she said. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Not especially,” I said, but that sounded rude, so I forced a little laugh and added, “Sure, I’m having a great time. When can I see you again?”
She repositioned an egg on the tray, licked her fingers, repositioned another. “You and I aren’t on a schedule. You know that, right? Deviled egg?”
“No, thanks,” I said, thinking about how she’d licked her fingers and then touched the eggs. “Wendell loves those things, though. Why don’t you bring him one?”
I watched the two of them from across the den. When she offered up the tray, he smiled and bent forward and kissed her on the cheek, then took one of the eggs and said thank you. He was going to eat it, I thought, and I felt a mild jolt of panic—as if I, too, believed the egg might be poisoned. But as soon as she turned away, he fed it to the Chihuahua.
The cats would have nothing to do with Loretta’s cooking, Wendell told me. Not even Hubba Bubba, who, with all that cancer to feed, would eat almost anything. So Wendell had to rely on Urine Andropov to eat the suspect food. And Urine Andropov, after a few weeks of eating oatmeal, mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, angel food cake, and everything else Loretta prepared for Wendell, along with the bowl of dry dog food that sat out 24/7, lay down under the coffee table and died.
Loretta was devastated when she found the dog. She cried while Wendell dug the hole in the backyard, and she cried as he tamped down the dirt. “He just got too old, I guess,” she said, wiping her nose with a tissue. “He just decided it was time.”
“Right,” Wendell said.
He started sleeping downstairs, in the den, lying to her about how their mattress was hurting his back. He started making his own food and casually refusing to eat whatever Loretta fixed for him. But the springs on the couch were shot and kept him from getting a decent night’s sleep, and he didn’t know how to cook. Nothing could be trusted to the refrigerator, he told me, because nothing going into his body was going to leave his sight until he was chewing it. “From store to mouth,” he said, pointing to his eyes. And so his diet became reduced to the likes of McDonald’s hamburgers, Taco Bell tacos, and something called Yum-Yum Pies from the convenience store near his neighborhood.
I did what I’d always done with Wendell: I let him talk. I asked questions now and then, inquired as to whether he was maybe taking this suspicion of his to the extreme, but mostly I just let him talk. I was his trusted friend, after all.
Not long into this new way of living (fast food, poor sleep), he began to look run down. He lost weight in his face and shoulders, even while his stomach was starting to push out over his belt. The back pain he’d lied about became real after several weeks on the couch, and his posture suffered for it. His skin started to look a little gray.
Loretta, he told me, had surprised him by noticing all this and seeming to care. But her concern only irked Wendell. She asked him, one morning while he was getting dressed for work, why he wasn’t eating at home anymore.
He told her he didn’t want to.
That was insane, she said. Nobody stopped eating in his own home.
Wendell said he did.
But why? And why the sudden problems with their mattress? She was fed up, she said; she really wanted to get to the bottom of things. She wanted them to talk about what was going on. (Was it hard for her, I wondered, to confront him while concealing so much herself? Or was it easy?)
There was a heavy rain that day, and Wendell and I were eating lunch inside, in one of the break rooms. There were four guys at the table in front of us, three at the table behind us. Another handful sitting off to the side, near the snack machines. From what I could tell, Wendell and I were the only people in the break room not talking about the Rogers Commission findings on the Challenger disaster.
“So I said, ‘Okay, little miss, let’s do that. Let’s have a talk. Why is it I don’t feel safe in my own home anymore? Why is it I get the feeling you’d be just as happy if I was dead? Happier, even?’”
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said I ought to talk to a shrink.”
There may have been a snicker from one of the neighboring tables, but I might have been hearing things. They were discussing O-rings, at least one of which had cracked on the aft seal joint of one of the rocket boosters, according to the Commission Report. Hot gases had escaped and had turned into flame, and the flame had made contact with the external fuel tank.
I’d never been aware of the O-rings before. They might have been as wide around as the rocket boosters, or as small as the wedding bands Wendell and I were wearing. “Design flaw” was a phrase I heard more than once from the other tables. The O-rings had a design flaw. The manufacturer was claiming it had warned the NASA administrators that cold weather was a potential problem because the rings weren’t designed to function in low temperatures. The NASA administrators were claiming that the warning hadn’t reached them in time. But we all knew they’d been itching to get Challenger off the ground. The launch had already been delayed several times, and delays were costly. Delays looked bad. The conversations I overheard in the break room that day stretched all the way back to Apollo 1 and the deadly fire that had resulted from the rush to stay on schedule. “Go fever,” it was called. There was a design flaw in the O-rings, according to the report, but there was also a design flaw in the administration’s decision-making process. “Heads are going to roll over this one,” someone said from a nearby table, and I thought, Heads have already rolled.
“Now, what good would a shrink do me, when I’m surrounded by poison?” Wendell asked.
Suddenly, the sound of his voice was like a finger jabbing into my brain. Or maybe I was just self-conscious about how ridiculous our conversation was, how nonsensical it must have sounded to our coworkers, if they were bothering to listen in.
“Well?” Wendell said.
“Are you seriously asking me if you could benefit from a psychiatrist?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “As a prophylaxis against hemlock. Or polonium. Or dimethylmercury.”
“Wendell, where do you come up with this stuff? Yes, I think you could benefit from a psychiatrist. I really do. Jesus Christ.”
My response caught him off guard. As I watched his face go slack, it occurred to me that he cared—he really cared—about what I thought of him.
It was still raining the next day, but he didn’t eat in the break room. The day after that, the skies cleared, but he wasn’t at our bench overlooking LC-39. I caught sight of him yards away, on another bench, peering into his lunch bag.
A week later, as he drove home from work, he lost control of his car and drove head-on into a magnolia tree. And survived.
We were full up on rumors lately. For example, there was the rumor that Challenger’s cockpit had been found almost immediately, and not days later, as the official report said; the remains inside were unrecognizable, were pulverized, were like scrambled eggs; they were put into trash bags and flown by helicopter to the mainland, where they were tossed into garbage trucks so as not to catch the attention of the news crews lurking nearby.
The rumors about Wendell were directed toward me—I guess because no one at work felt like they knew him as well as I did. Was it true he’d gotten so worked up, talking to himself, that he’d driven off the road? Was it true he’d been arguing with God, shaking his fist out the window? (I reminded them that there were no witnesses, other than Wendell.) The meanest rumor I heard was that he’d crashed his car deliberately, in an effort to end it all. I told the man who proposed this that Wendell wasn’t suicidal. More than once, I told all of them what I hoped was true: Wendell had fallen asleep behind the wheel, end of story.
The police said his Plymouth had traveled along the shoulder for nearly a hundred feet before it hit the tree. The windshield had blown out, the hood had accordioned, and the front bumper had embedded itself three inches deep into the trunk. Wendell fared better than the car, which had to be scrapped. Both of his wrists were sprained, his left ankle was broken, and his right kneecap—which, despite the seatbelt and the airbag, had somehow managed to hit the dashboard—was shattered. He had a broken nose and two black eyes.
When I visited him at home two days later, he told me he was lucky to be alive. There was no mention of our recent spat or the lunches he’d been taking alone. He seemed to be in fairly good spirits, glad to see me, even. And he was letting Loretta feed him. She’d turned their bedroom into a convalescent area, had rented him a rolling bedside hospital table so he could do his jigsaw puzzles. The table was pushed to the side while I was there. She was sitting in a chair next to him, holding a plate in one hand and a fork in the other. Wendell’s hands, wrapped in bandages, were resting in his lap.
Finished with lunch, he asked her if there was any ice cream, and she went to get it for him. When she was gone from the room, I sat down on the edge of the chair and asked him how he was doing.
“I’ve never been better,” he said, smiling.
I found that hard to accept. But I said, “That’s great. And you’re—all taken care of here?”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Loretta’s the best.”
I ran my eyes across his raccooned cheeks, his bandaged arms, the rolling hospital table with its coffee rings, lunch crumbs, and errant puzzle pieces. “The guys miss you at work,” I said.
“No they don’t.”
“They do. We all do. Everyone’s been asking about you.”
“Can I tell you something?” he asked. “Just between us?”
“I’m thinking about a career change.”
“Come on, don’t talk like that.”
“Really, I think I’m ready to try something else, once I get back on my feet. Different pastures, you know?”
I felt a twinge of something—an unspooling in my chest. “Like what?”
He shrugged. “Lockheed, maybe. Hey, don’t look so glum. It means a supervisor’s position will be opening up. You deserve it as much as anybody. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
I nodded, but the feeling held. Outside the windows, the daylight was just starting to fade. How many supervisors were they going to need, I wondered, if the program was shut down? And even if they kept it alive and shuffled us all around, did I really want to stay?
I told him to call me if he needed anything. Then I stood, patted his shoulder, and walked out of the room.
Loretta was coming toward the stairs, a bowl of ice cream in one hand and a spoon in the other, as I reached the bottom.
“How are you holding up?”
“Fine,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”
“He’s a miracle, isn’t he? It could have been a lot worse.”
“I guess so. But it’s not like he’s out of the woods yet.” She said this with her gaze fixed on the ice cream, and for a moment I wondered if Wendell had been right about her all along. But she added, “They might have to operate on his knee if it doesn’t heal right.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “That’s serious.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well. This is melting.”
I glanced up the stairs, lowered my voice. “You have a lot going on right now, I know, but is there any chance, in the next week or so, you might want to—”
“No,” she said.
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“I don’t want you to finish. I have to get upstairs, okay? You have to go.”
Driving home, I imagined what it would be like to drift off the side of the road and into a tree. I imagined the distraction that would be required to bring about such a moment of impact, and the chaos that would follow in its wake. Worth it? Not worth it? It didn’t matter. There were too many variables involved in such an act, and I was too cautious—too fussy—for that kind of recklessness. Maybe that was my design flaw.
Dinner was waiting.