There’s a dog sitting on the sidewalk near the door of the Fahrenheit coffeehouse. A big dog. Doggie dog. Tom is not a dog person. Not even a little. As he slides quarters into the parking meter, he looks at the German Shepherd. A big German Shepherd with ears. Ruff! Dogs know, damn it, that he’s not a dog person and they resent it. They bully him.
Dogs know that Tom is a coward deep down in his weepy little heart. Oh, Dog. He doesn’t notice anyone else having trouble with the pooch, all tongue and slobber. He worries: slobber on my suit. The dog is laughing at him. He leads with his wrist. Here dog. Pheromone check, yes? See. Not a bad man. Not a danger to myself or others. Smell my hand and do your doggie calculations. Fear, minus intent, equals: pass on by. Coffeehouse sentry. Grrrr! He’s clean. Let him through.
The air conditioning inside the coffeehouse is like a prize. And the winner…boy oh boy that cool air feels good. He was starting to sweat and that wouldn’t really work because he’s meeting someone and she…kiss, kiss. Right! In his dreams.
Tom spots Ruth. He spies her and takes a gander. She is sitting in the corner writing. Writing what? Her hand scoots across the page in a Morse code rhythm: The party of the first part…The party of the second. No. It’s all computer templates now, yes? Of course. Tom always wanted to be lawyer, but he never went to law school and this, then, is what happens. You don’t become a lawyer. Oops! Tom went, instead, to the ICC Technical Institute. The hallowed halls of a converted grocery store where he learned to turn tiny tiny screws with itty bitty screw drivers. Oh, and more importantly, he learned to write computer code. The secrets of the universe, yes? This was, everyone remembers, at a time when people who graduated from technical schools like ICC went on to become customer service technicians for IBM. He could look forward to repairing computerized cash registers or servicing sections of giant main frames that read time cards and spit out payroll checks.
But then came (hold on) the computer boom. Boom! And Tom’s know-how was needed elsewhere…needed everywhere. Fast and in a hurry. He was on the inside. Turns out—who would have guessed—Tom had more than a knack for this sort of thing. Ground-floor shares. Ground-floor millionaire. One wealthy hombre.
Of course, Ruth isn’t one to be impressed by money…is she? She’s pretty, that’s all. When she looks up from her work and smiles, Tom pulls out a dagger and slits his own throat. Not really. Joke! She doesn’t give him a hug. They’re not that sort-of couple. Actually, they’re no couple at all. Strictly business. A business affair. Anything beyond a handshake would be, well, unprofessional, inappropriate, and other multi-syllable words. Wouldn’t it? Ruth is his…or, one of his lawyers. She is not house counsel, but a hired gun. Bang! Take that. It’s the truth. She is here to help him sell his huge little company: RamDex. Everybody has heard of his company and nobody really knows what it does. It’s technical.
Tom left his second ground-floor millionaire job to start RamDex. Those were the days, everyone remembers, when you had to make an effort to screw up in the computer industry. And every day that RamDex made money, he felt like an impostor. This is my manufacturing plant? This is my loading dock? This is my office with a view of the bay? How did I get here? Come on. What’s the joke? Am I on candid camera?
“Sorry I’m late,” says Tom.
“Oh, no problem, just going over my notes.” Ruth smiles again. “They serve soup here. Soup with a roll, I think. I know you probably didn’t get a chance to eat.”
“Soup? Soup sounds good.” He hangs his jacket over the chair. “I’ll be right back, then.”
Will you marry me? Right! Not a chance. He walks up to the counter to order. The girl at the cash register has a nose ring, a pierced eyebrow, and about—
“Nine,” she says, when she sees him looking at her ears. “Nine ear rings, one nose, one eyebrow, tongue, bellybutton, and one unmentionable.”
“Do you want to order?”
“Please, yes…uh, what’s the soup?”
She points without looking to a sign behind her. “Split pea, no ham.” She sort of turns and bends a little as she says this, like she’s dancing.
“Hmmm. Split pea. You know, I can’t remember ever having split pea soup, exactly.”
The girl shifts her weight, brushes her hair back, and ponders the ceiling. She chews her gum furiously, but without malice. “Tastes like chalk,” she says.
“Tastes like chalk to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong or anything. It’s good.”
“Well, then…give me the chalk soup.”
She walks down to the end of the counter and starts to ladle out his soup. “Anything to drink?” she asks.
“Iced tea, thanks.”
As she hands him his change, her face suddenly lights up. She takes a postcard sized announcement from a stack near the tip jar and hands it to him.
“This is my band,” she says, “Monkey Tongue.”
Tom turns the postcard around in his hand.
“We’re playing Friday night at the place next door, the bar upstairs.”
He looks at the postcard, which reads: The Bar Upstairs Presents Monkey Tongue.
“Monkey Tongue,” he says. “Wow.”
“Yeah, we cover the Monkees.”
Tom pictures a giant cotton sheet bubbling like water on the stage as the monkeys underneath try and escape. Eeek! Eeek!
“You know,” she adds. “That’s your generation, right? The Monkees? ‘Hey hey, we’re the Monkees…’”
Tom remembers. “Right, right. The Monkees, sure. Junior high school. Mickey, Peter and whatever. Yeah, I watched that show.”
“Yeah. Their music is really cool, but we play our own stuff too.”
“Do you sing?”
“Back up. I’m the bass player.” She breaks into an air guitar riff.
“Well, maybe I’ll drop in. I haven’t heard live music in a long time.”
“Cool, yeah. Bring your friends. It’ll be nostalgic and everything.”
He puts the postcard in his shirt pocket and he carries his soup back to the table. Ruth doesn’t look up this time, but keeps writing. “You know, Tom, I honestly don’t think you could have picked a better time to sell RamDex.”
He has the impostor feeling. Poser! “Really? Well, it just feels like time, I guess. I don’t think it’s been much of a strategic thing.”
“Well, whatever your motivation, now is the time. We’re beating them back with a stick. You’re the belle of the ball.”
But his success doesn’t interest him. Luck. The right place at the right time. Pow!
“You know,” he says, “I think I’ve already sold the company emotionally. It feels like a done deal. I don’t feel invested.”
Ruth laughs. “Oh, you’ll be invested, all right. It’s part of the package we’ve put together.”
“God, more money. It’s all gotten sort of silly.”
Ruth looks up from her papers. She frowns. “So start a foundation or something. We can strategize for the guilt factor if that’s an issue.”
The guilt factor. If only guilt was a factor. He isn’t sure he knows how to feel guilty when it comes to business. A faker? Yes. But, guilt? Guilt is reserved for those who act out of intention. Tom is a walking reaction, a living pinball. Bing! Bong! Whir! He just keeps racking up the points.
“Maybe,” he says. “A foundation might be interesting.”
“Have you given any more thought to what you might do once we’ve put this thing to bed?” she asks.
He’s getting some rare eye contact from her. Is this a personal question? No. She’s fishing for more business, exploring future opportunities. Good for her. Go get ‘em Ruth.
“Well, honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. But I’m sure I’ll end up needing a lawyer or two somewhere down the line.”
“I’ve got to admit, Tom, having you and RamDex as a client has given our firm some prestige here in the valley. The truth is, your name has brought us additional business we might not have picked up otherwise.”
Impostor. Whenever he reads his name in the newspaper or a trade publication, he feels detached, out of body. That is some other Tommy Eisner he is reading about. He prefers they talk about RamDex. RamDex, he likes to think, is the company he works for.
“I think you do great work,” he says. “It’s been my pleasure to recommend you when I can.”
All business. Next on the agenda. Move along. The soup does taste like chalk. Good chalk, though. Green, green. He keeps adding salt. He waits for Ruth to get down to it, and she does. While he dips his roll into the split pea, squeezes lemon into his tea, chews his ice, Ruth fills him in on the offers. Crunch! She details the subtle differences between them. Some are just fat cash offers. Others come with less cash, but are adorned with interesting perks and opportunities which should be considered over the long run.
Ruth’s voice rises and falls with the steam of the espresso machine. Her words fade into the background as he focuses on her teeth. Great teeth.
He realizes she’s paused and it’s his turn to say something, give her his feedback. Now would be the time to say: I’m Batman. If he was Batman. She’s worked hard on this whole thing and her face is all confidence and anticipation.
“Remember the Monkees?” he says.
“You know. ‘Here we come, walking down the street…’ The Monkees.”
“Well, I know who they are, or were. I mean, I guess that’s a little before my time, but I’ve seen reruns. So…you want to finance their next reunion tour or something?”
Ha. Funny. Good. He laughs. Of course not. But the idea of doing something a little nutty with all his play money does appeal to him. He’d like to do something where success wasn’t really the point. Or, at least, success measured by numbers wasn’t the point.
“No,” he says, “it’s just that…well, the girl at the counter, she’s in a band, a rock band or…and they play Monkees music, Monkees songs. It’s a revival or tribute thing, I guess. I don’t know.”
He pulls the postcard from his pocket and hands it to her. She takes a deep breath and looks at it. She’s summoning up her patience. He’s seen her do it before and he imagines she assumes he likes to test her on occasion. She might tell herself that this is how it is with powerful people. They test you, gauge your reactions to things so they know how best to use you. People in business think these things, he knows. They are always looking for ulterior motives, hidden agendas, who controls the most variables, who is in the loop, and what do people mean by what they say. Poof!
“Huh,” she says, and hands the card back.
He looks down at the band’s logo. It’s a spoof on the Rolling Stone’s logo, using a monkey’s mouth. Apart from the name, the logo wouldn’t make much sense. He’d done the original RamDex logo himself, a profile of a human head opened like a box lid on hinges with a floating spool of tape snaking down into it. Eventually, they hired a high-end design boutique in San Francisco to design a new one. They came up with a cube spinning on one corner. They said it represented both speed and order. Well, speed and order. What more could you ask for in this business. Hooray!
“Tom?” Ruth looks expectant.
“Sorry. Tell me, what do you recommend?”
“At this point, almost any one of these deals looks good to me. Your people will be taken care of, which I know is your priority. The offers we didn’t like were eliminated weeks ago.”
“Still, tell me which one you favor?”
“Me?” She flips through a few pages, but he knows she is stalling somewhere between her mind and her gut. Tick! Tock! She closes the file and looks up. “Take the money and run.”
Ruth stopped reading the proposal summary in front of her to watch Tom. He was standing in front of the coffeehouse, offering the back of his hand to a German Shepherd. The dog sniffed his hand briefly and then looked away, uninterested. But Tom remained stooped over, his arm outstretched. He didn’t try to pet the dog. What was he waiting for? Finally, straightening up, he walked into the coffeehouse.
He was, she thought, nice looking in the way that money can only improve. That’s not to say it was his money that made him attractive. It’s just that he was always wearing a nice suit. He always had a nice hair cut and expensive glasses. She imagined he could look sort of awful. Like me, she thought, he isn’t a natural beauty. Good grooming can never be overrated.
As he looked around for her, she went back to her work. Best to look busy. It had occurred to her that these sorts of moves were not needed with Tom, but these habits were as old as her first homework assignment. She was a little worried that her suggesting they meet in such a casual atmosphere might have been a bad idea. But when she looked up and read the smile on his face, she decided her instincts had been right. She guessed that conference tables and battalions of lawyers were exactly what he was trying to leave behind.
Keeping with the casual theme, she suggested he try the soup. As he stood at the counter she allowed herself to check him out. Though she knew it to be an unreasonable notion, she couldn’t help but imagine that men with nice butts would be good in bed. Tom, she decided, would be good in bed, assuming, of course, he wasn’t still a virgin at 44.
She laughed at her joke. He wasn’t married and never mentioned a girlfriend. The gossip at her firm was that he rarely dated. He’d been known to show up at industry events alone. No time? He didn’t strike her as the asexual type. Gay? She watched his body language with the girl behind the counter. Like most women she knew in San Francisco, she liked to consider herself something of an expert in this realm of speculation. In Tom’s case, she would bet against it. But the categories had begun to blur in her mind over the last few years. Maybe he was one of the growing numbers of undefinables who felt free to slide up and down Dr. Kinsey’s scale of sexuality. Ah, the rich.
Her mind always worked this way, always looking for the angles, options, opportunities. It made her a great business attorney, but sometimes it was exhausting.
Tom sat down at the table with what looked like split pea soup and she wondered how his mind worked. He was occasionally elliptical, but knew how to get to the point when necessary. She thought he was probably always thinking of new product ideas, new marketing plans. The computer industry viewed him as some sort of hybrid, difficult to figure. He seemed equally at home (or was it equally uneasy?) with tech-nerds and marketing mavens. How does a mind like that work?
Hamburger. Munch! Eating soup always made him wish for a hamburger, something to chew. Take the money and run? Ruth is being honest, it seems, projecting her real opinion into this situation. Good.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll take the cash, Monty Hall.” (I’m Batman!)
He expects her to smile, but she raises an eyebrow instead. “Tom, that’s just what I might do, but I can’t say it’s the best option. Actually, I think, as a firm, we were going to recommend the B.R.H. offer. The consulting deal keeps you in the game. It’s not as much cash up front, but it’s quite a bit more over the long run.
“You know, I’ve been pretty sure from the start that I wanted to make a clean break, get completely free of the whole thing. Besides, I like their attitude over at Delcom. That whole Gen-X thing feels right for RamDex.”
“Well, I admit I was thinking the same thing.”
“Then it’s a done deal.”
Ruth leans back and crosses her arms. “Hardly. Now it’s time for Eric Dobson, our negotiator, to take over. Have you met him?”
“No. Maybe. Let’s go see the monkeys.” Zoom!
“Yeah, the band…the monkey’s tongue or whoever they are.”
“When…I mean, where is that?”
“Tomorrow, next door to this place.”
He watches her. Dope! She was completely unprepared. He stops himself from saying never mind. He puts his spoon into the soup bowl and leaves it there. He wants to tell her something secret, something private, something he’s never told anyone. Nothing comes to mind. Hello! She is telling him it sounds fun. Sure, she’d like to go. She is leaning forward in an effort to look earnest, eager, excited, or some other ‘e’ word. He understands that she is a little uncomfortable and that until a few years ago he would always forget to clean his glasses. His comic book collection is worth more than his car. He keeps them in a special room. She probably reads The New Yorker and runs three miles every morning. He could spend thousands of dollars every day and still not spend all of his money in his life time. There should be a law.
“We can meet here for coffee before,” he says, trying to make it all seem a little more casual.
For a moment, all she could think about was how he got the name of the band wrong. It’s Monkey Tongue, not The Monkey’s Tongue. But then she noticed her pulse. She hadn’t seen it coming. She tried to remember what she’d done to make him ask her out, but then stopped herself. That was silly, to always think that she somehow invited the invitation. Not that she wishes he hadn’t. It was Tom Eisner, for one thing. And she was interested in him…generally. Maybe specifically. She wasn’t sure. Of course, she’d assessed him in that way, but she did that to most men she knew. God, was she really using the word “assess” in reference to a man?
She hadn’t really thought about Tom as a possibility. There were nagging thoughts about business and pleasure, but then she had to laugh at herself. The reason she had hesitated when he first asked was because she was supposed to go out with Eric. Negotiator Eric from her office. She would have to cancel.
Tom pulled the band’s postcard from his shirt pocket and fiddled with it while suggesting they meet for coffee before. She glanced at the card and saw that the band didn’t start playing until ten o’clock.
“The band goes on late,” she said. “Let’s make it dinner.”
Then the doubts lined up in a neat little row. Maybe this was just a business celebration get together. She should have kept her mouth shut and followed his lead. He even winced when she mentioned dinner. She’d blown it. She couldn’t believe how, in a matter of seconds, she’d gone from not even considering the possibility of dating this man to being disappointed that he wasn’t interested in her as more than a business associate. Wait. She had to slow down, take a breath. Breathe, Ruthy. Now she was angry. Her mind was racing, and for what?
Turns out his wince was due to the fact that he had plans for early in the evening. She must have still been a little angry as he explained about needing to look at a few homes with his real estate broker because her first thought was that she might still be able to sneak in dinner with Eric. She and Eric had been sort of dating for a few months. But they were seeing other people. Weren’t they?
Oh, dog. Still here? The German shepherd lifts its head when he and Ruth step out of Fahrenheit. Let me out? Whew!
“Okay, so,” he says. “Okay, then.”
“Coffee at nine and then monkey music,” she says.
“Right, The Monkees. We’ll see you then at nine.”
He watches her walk down the street as he unlocks his car. Hot! The car is hot. He’s wishing he didn’t have to see Cindy tomorrow night. If she was just his real estate broker, he could cancel, though he is anxious to finish up the house hunting. But he and Cindy have been seeing each other socially. It isn’t anything very serious, not real serious. They hadn’t slept together. Yikes! He found her attractive. Sure, sure. But, what?
This is the thing. The thing about it is, Cindy is good company. She understands his schedule, yes? She doesn’t call…very often. But what if she did? Would he mind? Probably. Would he mind if Ruth called all the time? Every day at eleven, two and four? All the time. No way Jose. He’s got eyes for her. Eyes, eyes. Likes her attitude.
Yes, Delcom and their big pants. That would do. Ruth and her white teeth. He doesn’t remember ever trying to imagine any other woman with her hair down. Would she wear her hair down tomorrow? He’s not usually one to ask himself these questions, is he? Cindy always wears her hair up…or…no. Cindy has short hair. Yes, yes.
Anyway, there’s no understanding between him and Cindy. Right?
He rolls down his window as he pulls away from the curb and sings words to a song he didn’t know he knew: Then I saw her face…