The Donor

Chapter 6

      Terry lit out as early as he could manage, and scoured the bar desperately looking for any excuse not to go home that night. He'd fulfilled his promise to Eurick not to avoid Mary, and what had it gotten him? The weirdest conversation he'd had since high school, gossiping about vampires like characters off the old "Dark Shadows" gothic television soap opera.
      It was one of his frustrating nights. Every conversation he struck up seemed to die an early death, and nobody's eyes warmed to his. He kept dallying and caught almost the very last bus that came anywhere near. He walked from the bus stop in the chill, not tipsy, not tired enough, rattled, and in that state of alert in which every distorted shadow threatens mayhem under the glare of the street lamps.
      In his apartment he bathed himself with comforting light. He lay down and expected to sleep. He felt the tug, the plummet into the darkness, but at the bottom he found not sleep but an unpleasant wakefulness. He kept wondering. What was it Eurick got from the rabbits. Mary said it wasn't calories. What if it wasn't about food at all? He wanted -- no he didn't want to do that, it was nauseating. And anyway, the whole thing had to be an aberrant fantasy of theirs. It couldn't be true.
      Dylan was at Terry's door when he got home from work. "I'm bored. Mom won't let me go to the park alone."
      Terry sent him off to tell Mary while he changed clothes, and they went.
      While Dylan was around, everything else receded, Eurick, and Mary, and Jack. He entered into another world, where velocity and gravity and strength were endlessly new and fascinating, and the complications of interpersonal relationships narrowed down to Dylan's own familiar struggles with his peers at school.
      As December advanced, the project deadline came closer and Jack began asking more often for the people in his section to put more time in towards finishing. He apologized, he regretted, but the deadline was firm and he reminded them they hadn't gotten as far as they'd planned. Terry gritted his teeth and claimed a childcare commitment to spend two afternoons a week with Dylan. Jack's eyes glittered: Terry felt like he was stepping over the edge, but Jack just nodded his head, and asked if there were other times that Terry could work extra.
      "Nights, weekends, anything else," Terry said, and there was Jack glittering again.
      Terry mentioned it to Eurick after dinner, the first dinner he'd had upstairs since Thanksgiving. Eurick was looking better than he had the night of the conversation by the stairs, but still pale. He was helping Dylan with a complex, fantastical and mostly black Lego construction which Terry understood was meant to represent a space vehicle.
      Eurick said, "That's why I freelance. Nobody exploits me but me."
      "The thing about it is I still like Jack. A lot."
      "He has a pleasant manner, right? And he acts like you're the best thing that's happened to software development in a long time?"
      "Sometimes. Sometimes he acts like there's some kind of trouble brewing for me that he doesn't think he can stave off, that he wants to distance himself from. But he doesn't actually do anything prejudicial to me, nit like the other managers with their scapegoats."
      "Another reason I freelance. You spend so much time trying to second-guess the bosses you have only half your brain left for your work."
      Terry didn't mention the other thing he thought might be between himself and Jack. There was that lingering gaze every so often that made it seem inappropriate to mention wanting to Eurick. He let that go, and traded boss stories for half an hour or so before rising to go downstairs. Eurick followed him out to the rear landing.
      "You're still wearing it," Eurick said.
      The air was as thick as it was cold. The dry fog penetrated right through as if the only thing Terry wore was the little silver necklace, which hung heavy as fishing weights and felt like so many open safety pins against his skin.
      "I'll wear it as long as you want me to," Terry said.
      "If I wanted you to take it off you'd be stupid to do it," Eurick said.
      "I don't mind making a fool of myself." The cold had gotten all the way under his skin. He was shivering.
      Eurick turned away. "Good night, Terry. Take care."
      The week before Christmas Jack took Terry up on the extra hours. He got him to come in Saturday for six hours, and Sunday for what was supposed to be three hours but turned into nine, and early every day, and then almost until nine on his non-Dylan days. Terry hardly noticed how other people were coming and going, but the amount of other people's work he was looking at gave him the impression he was the only one working quite as much as he did. He asked Jack what the others were doing.
      "I kind of had to let up a little on the people with families. I figured I could exploit you pretty thoroughly since you had given me permission." He grinned. "Actually, I'm thinking of doing a company rendition of 'A Christmas Carol,' and I'm trying you out for Bob Cratchit."
      There followed a list of the rest of the cast, including the goose and the doorknocker. Terry laughed, a tentative fragile laugh, and turned to plunge back into the work.
      "Remember, office party Friday," Jack said. "Short respite from the grind."
      The dots on the screen wouldn't resolve into characters when Terry first sat down to work again. It wasn't just that he was tired. It was also that he wanted the leisure to figure out Jack. Jack never pretending he wasn't asking outrageous things: he never apologized, never sugarcoated, bribed, or threatened, only asked and expected to get what he asked for. The whole section seemed willing enough to give him what he asked for. Terry wondered if he was the only one willing to give him more than that.
      Thursday night after the park Terry mentioned the next night's company potluck to Dylan.
      "You should take garlic bread," Dylan said. "It's easy. everybody likes it. Want me to make it for you? I do it all the time."
      Terry was a little leery of taking the kind of bread Mary made to work, so he was relieved when Dylan's first step was to run down the hill to buy a few baguettes and a pound of butter. He meant the running part literally.
      The garlic bread that Dylan and Terry made was a hit at the office.
      "That'll cure what ails you," Lana said.
      Another person said, "I have a date tonight, but that's just too bad for them -- I couldn't pass this up."
      Jack leaned in very close to Terry. "I can see that Dracula has left its mark on you, after all," he whispered. Startled, Terry turned and looked at him. His expression was exaggeratedly serious. For just a broken moment Terry forgot that the thing about Eurick was unbelievable. Then he remembered, and laughed, and so did Jack.
      "You should have seen my garden back East," Terry said, but he was joking: he hadn't had a garden back East. "Fence to fence with wolfsbane. Can't be too careful with these guys."
      "And you wear a cross on that chain too," Jack said. Terry felt for it: it was tucked away, it couldn't be visible: but it must have been at some time or another. Jack must have just assumed that Terry wore it all the time. "Not exactly," he said. "But protective anyway. No man's going to suck the lifeblood from em against my will."
      Jack patted him on the shoulder and plunged into the crowd, to go and tease someone else.
      "You watch out for that one," Lana said.
      "What do you mean?"
      "Oh, nothing," she said, smiling around a bite of shrimp dip on a cracker. Terry relaxed when he realized she really did mean nothing by it.
      The party went on and on. Everybody was a little frantic, overstimulated and determined to enjoy themselves. In one corner there were people singing parodies of Christmas carols. In another room there were people dancing to a portable cassette player. Terry drifted in and danced for a while, with a woman he barely knew, Jeannette who was working on another project. She told him he was a good dancer, he joked about that effeminate streak in him, and she launched into a lecture about how self-hatred was bad.
      After a while Terry went back into the biggest office where the food was laid out. Jack, on the other side of the room, called Terry over. Jack was holding forth, flushed and urgent. Terry wondered how he could have gotten drunk at a non-alcoholic potluck.
      "What I don't get," Jack was saying, "Not a single word of protest, not even after what I did to you guys this last month. I'm management. It's my job to work you like donkeys. It's your job to resist being worked like donkeys so I can tell you you're a bunch of slackers. You don't get paid nearly enough to work like this. You think it's loyal to take this crap? How about loyal to yourselves?"
      He took a deep breath and continued, suddenly not even slightly joking. "And to think I hired Terry to kick your butts into some kind of reaction. I had hopes for you, guy. I'm disappointed. Where's the revolutionary fervor I thought you had?"
      Terry stared at the ceiling while he tried to decide what kind of mess he was in. By the time he looked back at Jack, he had decided that whatever it was, he wasn't going to escape it by not saying anything.
      "Well, if you expected any motion from me, you just screwed it up," Terry said. "You just called me a potential troublemaker in front of everybody. Anything I say from now on is going to scare the pants off anybody I say it to."
      "Aren't you going to ask why I has such high hopes for you, Terry?" Jack asked. The group was growing. Terry didn't look around, but he didn't get the feeling that anybody was worried about this.
      "No. I'm not. But I'll listen if you tell me."
      "From the first interview. You didn't seem like you would take too much abuse. You didn't seem shy. And since. You tell the truth even when it is embarrassing to you."
      Terry shook his head. He hadn't noticed any of these things about himself, and he didn't think they were true.
      "And justice matters to you."
      "If you were hoping for a martyr to organize your little white-collar sweatshop, you better look somewhere else," Terry said. "I'm not your boy. My head's down."
      Jack was biting his lip, rocking slightly. Terry didn't know what this exchange was about, really, and he didn't know what the disturbance in his belly was about -- fear, anger, or lust.
      "Too bad," Jack said. "You just all ought to know if you want anything you have to demand it, not wait for the managers to give it to you."
      Jack seemed ready to drop the subject at last. He asked a woman behind Terry if she had eaten at a new Thai restaurant in the neighborhood. Terry wandered off, wondering, how can Jack do this to me and I can still like him?
      Later, he was thinking about asking for a ride home when Lana whispered, "I heard Jack did a number on you."
      "Yeah. I could tell you all the things he said but I couldn't tell you what he was trying to do."
      "Don't let it rattle you. He takes out his guilt on other people sometimes."
      "Why should he feel guilty? He doesn't do anything the rest of them don't do."
      "And he's the best one around here."
      "Not good enough for Jack."
      Terry stacked chairs and helped clean up. Passing by Jack he asked for a ride. Jack looked startled, but nodded.
      Terry took great interest in the fabric of his trousers on the way home. Finally, as Jack gunned the motor for the steep climb up Terry's hill, Terry said, "You could come in for coffee if you want. You could explain that conversation tonight or pretend it never happened. I won't mind."
      Jack didn't answer right away, but after he had parked half a block away, he nodded and climbed out.
      Terry knew very well what the disturbance in his belly was about this time.
      "Your place looks like theirs," Jack said, standing just inside the door, staring around the living room. Terry had gotten a few items of furniture. No pictures. Mary's garlands seemed like all the decoration the room needed or could stand.
      "It's this thing of Mary's," Terry said carefully. "She says it's her trademark, that's all." A vision flashed of Eurick with the rabbit, Mary with the ladle. And he thinks I'm so honest, he thought. There's so much I never say.
      They passed back to the kitchen. Jack whistled when he saw the bowl of garlic. "You really are into it, aren't you?"
      "The garlic is a housewarming gift from Mary." Terry said. "I've been learning to cook with it. I've been learning all sorts of domestic arts. Gardening. Canning."
      Jack bit off the start of a joke and swallowed it. Terry supplied it: "Right. I'll make somebody a good wife someday, maybe."
      Meanwhile the kettle was on the stove and Terry got the jar of whole coffee beans from the refrigerator. The hand grinder was the old-fashioned square kind and it sat fat and happy next to the glass dripping pot.
      "I'm sorry I put you on the spot before," Jack said. "I get so frustrated about what people put up with. I take after somebody every so often. I guess it was your turn. Sorry."
      "I don't really mind," Terry said, and now he didn't. "Just, what I said before was true. I can't take any kind of initiative now because I'm marked and nobody would do a thing with me."
      "Would you have otherwise?"
      "I don't know, really. And I don't think I should talk about it with you. You never know what could become relevant."
      "You're really quite careful, aren't you?"
      "Yes, I'm careful."
      Terry set the coffee on the table. The cups were a bright rich blue, and the coffee looked really black in them. "Milk? Or sugar?"
      "Mary doesn't forbid them?"
      "Mary doesn't run my kitchen."
      "Good. I use sugar like a drug to run fast on. . . I had the impression Mary had a big influence on you."
      "She does. But just an influence. We've ben friends mellowed into friendship." Jack surmised, grinning.
      "Kind of, not exactly."
      "You mean -- no crush? Not mellowed? Or not Mary? The other one -- Eurick?"
      Terry watched Jack drinking his white coffee. "Not Mary. Not altogether mellowed, I guess."
      "Really?" Jack asked, too interested.
      Terry shrugged. "Mostly mellowed."
      Jack nodded. "I had one like that. He still lives in Des Moines. I see him once a year or so. Always interesting, he's always unavailable, and it's -- all right now."
      "What's he like?"
      "Married, two kids, major habitue of the bars. But a good guy in his way. Always has a new little restaurant to show me when I get there. Wants to prove Des Moines is as good as San Francisco.
      The tension of a few minutes ago had dissipated. When Jack stood up to go, Terry let him.
      Mary had a "holiday dinner" for Terry before she drove him to the airport. She said that she didn't celebrate specific holidays. "It's the birth of the Child -- not the Christ Child, but the ur-Child, and the continuation of life," she said. Dylan glowed with anticipation, serene in his knowledge of which Child was being celebrated.
      Mary allowed Dylan to open the box from Terry. Dylan whooped, wordless, and Terry felt smug that he had chosen the right ball. Dylan leapt up and hugged everyone in the room when Terry laid out the plan to teach him the rudiments of soccer and get him signed up for the youth league later on.
      "I'm grateful too," Eurick said, his hand still on Dylan's shoulder. "I'm just so unathletic, I was worried about how to do justice to Dylan's interests."
      Terry thought there was something off in Eurick's tone. But, though Eurick looked generally stressed, didn't seem to be hiding jealousy of Terry and Dylan's shared interest. If anything, he seemed smug, like someone who anticipates a good dinner.
      Mary made Terry open a small package also. It was not easy. The paper was tissue hand printed by Mary and Dylan in those Mary Thiele talisman designs, and Terry didn't like tearing it. After he had struggled with it Mary brought a tiny razor knife and slit the tape. Inside there was a plain white paper box, and inside that more exquisite printed tissue. Under the tissue was one of the small woven pieces Mary had described before, folded in quarters. Terry opened it out, and saw a richly colored, richly detailed design: a hand holding a winged human heart on which was traced in the same blue as the veins which trailed away from it, a strange, many-armed symbol which seemed to contain all the others. The effect was not entirely successful, too busy to really work as a symbol.
      But, "It's lovely," Terry said, and he meant it, though he was embarrassed too by the intensity of the image. At least it was less shocking than the resin heart Mary had given Eurick years ago. And it couldn't mean the same thing -- how could it? Mary was his friend. She was in love with Eurick.
      "I didn't end up using that design just as it was," Mary said. "It was too cluttered. I left the heart plain in the finished work. Want to see it?"
      She brought out a very large binder which barely fit on her lap. Each thick page bore large clear photos of Mary's paintings and tapestries, labeled with technical information and information about the buyer, and sometimes other remarks.
      "I keep thinking about that heart you made for Eurick that time," Terry said as Mary turned the pages.
      "Oh, that," she said with exaggerated casualness. "That was pretty tasteless, wasn't it? You know I think some of the kids thought it was real at first."
      "I did," Terry said. "I kept thinking, it has to be from a cow, it can't be what it looks like."
      "I would have thought that the big crack in it would have been a giveaway. I never worked in plastic again after that. Oh, here it is."
      There was the reaching figure that dominated so many of Mary's pieces, this time with wings on his hands and feet as well as on the heart which he was holding over his head as a circle of strange birds, their intentions unclear, circled above. The man was smiling, but his eyes were very wide and the highlights picked out in the thin strands of his face suggested tears.

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