Edwin Balder was lying on his bed when he heard his doorbell ring. He made no move to get it. Edwin’s doorbell had ringed a few times over the last three weeks that he’d been holed up in his apartment, and he’d gotten used to the sound. Of course, most of the rings were not for him, but were people on the outside ringing the wrong apartment, or food delivery men who’d gotten confused. The exterminator had ringed twice in the same Saturday, which had been the day’s highlight for Edwin. Lawson rang once one week and then twice the next week, but he hadn’t come by to ring at all this last week of solitude, before Edwin had to get it together and get back to work, back to life, back to being Edwin Balder in a world that belonged to the Life and Times of Edward Bedoor in the Real World.
The phone had ringed as well, but Edwin let the answering machine get. Mr. Owen Chase had called a couple of times, inquiring where Edwin had been. His first phone call was full of compassion and concern, but the second was a tad bit more irritated and direct. Chase mentioned something about being AWOL which Edwin, half drunk on scotch while lying on his couch, unwashed and unshaven, covered in a pile of old McSweeny’s, thought quite amusing. How could one be AWOL from an office job? It wasn’t as if they were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Edwin pictured fat old Owen Chase trudging through the desert wearing fatigues and toting a machine gun, and the mental image made him laugh. Imagine the amount of sweat, he thought. Would Chase still be able to assault the McDonald’s Dollar Menu in Kabul? Then Edwin thought that if he and Owen Chase were in the military together, he’d frag that man for sure.
Mary rang and Edwin took the call soon after she started speaking into the answering machine. The folks in HR at the Insert-Massive-Conglomerate-Here Invoicing Company had offered him leave for mental exhaustion and stress over the coming office closure. Mary had filed the paperwork and Lawson had forged Edwin’s name, she said. Edwin didn’t speak. Mary told him that the kind folks in HR were nervous and worried about lawsuits as this juncture, and that they simply wanted to cover all pertinent bases with their employees. Mary told Edwin and his answering machine that the kind, generous folks at HR were sending additional paperwork should Edwin need to take part in the free family counseling offered as a benefit to employees of the Insert-Massive-Conglomerate-Here Invoicing Company. Mary told Edwin that he’d have to return to work in three weeks or take part in the Family Leave Act. Edwin thanked Sour Bear for all of her help, and hung up the phone. Then he went to the post office and canceled his mail for three weeks, before stopping at the Liquor store to buy a case of Duncan’s Scotch Blend in 1.75ml plastic bottles, and hitting the grocery store for a mother-load of Hot Pockets, boxed macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, and pizza squares.
The doorbell rang again and something told Edwin to get it. The exterminator wasn’t due for another week, and it was an odd hour of the day to be ordering food. It couldn’t be Molly Brown, as they had not spoken since that fateful day in the city. They passed each other in the hallway, when Edwin left his apartment that is, like strangers, exchanging weak smiles and half-hearted waves. But they were still connected. After all, this estrangement certainly did not keep Molly Brown from stamping her feet across her floor like some Neanderthal, or jumping Matthew Joy’s bones whenever she got the chance. According to Edwin’s schedule they did it twice a day; once at nine o’clock in the morning, and once again at eleven o’clock at night. Sometimes they had a random middle of the day fuck, but this was rare. Edwin made a special effort to be in his bedroom during these trysts and had gotten quite used to and accustomed to the soothing noise of bedsprings creaking away in ecstasy.
“Who is it?” Edwin shouted at his door when his buzzer rang a third time. “I swear to you I’m armed and I’m thinking of purchasing a Pit Bull.”
“Edwin?” a muffled voice said.
“I know who I am. Who are you?”
“What are you doing poking around here, Tybalt?”
“I came to see you,” Arlene said.
“Do I owe you money?”
“Well, I don’t sell drugs,” Edwin said. “And I’m not going to spot you two Ecstasy pills either so that you can go and get some glow sticks, and hit a rave on the way back to Manhattan. No, I’m afraid that if you want drugs you’ll have to go and see the little hussy who lives upstairs.”
“Edwin, will you just open the goddamned door?” Arlene said.
“As you wish.”
Edwin opened the door and a beautiful brunette with ice blue eyes was on the other end. Of course, he knew that. Arlene had her hair straight to her shoulders and it had a slight curl to it at the tips. Obviously it wasn’t a natural curl, Edwin thought, but that didn’t bother him so much. He had grown used to people being false and insincere. She had on a black Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, God awful baggy jeans, and a flannel shirt tied around her waist. Arlene was wearing a pair of green Doc Marten boots.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hello,” Edwin said. “Lollapalooza isn’t for another three months.”
“May I come in?”
“Only if you brought your Soundgarden tapes.”
Edwin stepped aside and Arlene Pollard walked into his apartment for the first time ever. If this were any other time in his life, Edwin would most assuredly be embarrassed by the state of the place. There were unwashed dishes in the sink and empty scotch bottles piled on the kitchen floor. Dried booze glasses were set randomly on counters, on the table; one glass was actually lying on its side on the floor. Edwin had thrown it after finishing The Life and Times of Edward Beddor in the Real World, not realizing the thing was plastic. The living room was a sparse mess. It seemed strange to Edwin to have hardly a book on the book shelf, nary a CD, no pictures on the wall, and still have the room look as if it were in shambles. Perhaps it was a lack of sun that made it seem so cluttered and gloomy. But the sun was over-rated, Edwin thought, as he and Arlene walked into the living room.
“This is a nice place,” Arlene said, sitting on Natalie’s old side of the couch. Despite what the novel said, Edwin had never sat on Natalie’s side of the couch. And he’d never drank red wine. Wine was for women and Italian stone masons. Everyone knew that. Of course there were a lot of discrepancies in that book. Edwin had tried to let it go but had failed miserably. Fiction was fiction, he tried to say, before falling into weeks of depression. But amongst the other transgressions that had taken place in Natalie Chappel Presley’s book, he could not live with the idea of people thinking him a wine drinker.
“Are all of you Pollard’s liars?” Edwin asked. He didn’t sit down, but began nervously straightening the few books on one of his shelves. “The place is a dump.”
“It’s double the size of my place in the city.”
“Boo hoo. Poor little Manhattanite doesn’t have everything.”
“I wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact,” Arlene said. “My close proximity to the Grassroots makes up for that.”
Edwin spun and pointed a finger at her. “Never mention that place in here again!”
“I’m sorry. I thought you liked the Grassroots.”
“Liked being the formative word.” Edwin went back over to the foyer and picked that plastic glass off of the ground. “I suppose you’ve heard all about my horrible ordeal these last few weeks.”
“Yeah,” Arlene said.
Edwin looked at her, watching as she played with her hair. “I suppose I’m the great big clown amongst the aging hipster set.”
“Let’s just say most of your old friends aren’t feeling so sorry for you.”
“You’ve come by to mock me as well?”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Selling girl scout cookies?” Edwin asked. “You’ve some to the wrong place.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“The real question is why would you want me to call you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?”
Arlene gave Edwin a confused look. “Can I have something to drink?”
“Yes,” Edwin said. “Would you like me to draw blood as well?”
“We’ll see how the afternoon goes,” Arlene said.
Edwin went into the kitchen and grabbed two glasses off of the counter. He sniffed them. They seemed all right, but he gave them a cursory wash in the sink just to be on the safe side. He’d run out of liquid detergent weeks ago, so good old water would have to do. Then Edwin opened the fridge and pulled out one of the scotch bottles. He still had two bottles left to help him get through the next week’s return to work. He opened the bottle and took a swing on the caramel-colored liquid, before pouring two sloppy shots into the waiting glasses. Edwin opened the freezer and took out a couple of ice cubes, dropped them in the glasses, and was back in the living room in no time.
“Are you happy now?” he asked, handing Arlene her drink.
“I was thinking water or soda, but I guess this is good,” she said. Then she patted the seat on the other side of the couch. “You can sit. I don’t bite, you know.”
“I’ve been bitten enough by women lately,” Edwin said.
“So the book was that bad?”
“It massacred my soul. I’m a shell of a human being. I am, as the kids say these days, a hot mess.”
Arlene had some scotch, winced at its cheapness. “You seem okay to me, minus the scraggly beard and uncombed hair.”
“What do you know, Pollard?” Edwin said. “I ache as I’ve never ached before.”
“Well, you should’ve called me.”
“And discuss what?” Edwin had a good pull on his scotch. “My shrinking self?”
“We could’ve gone out and had fun,” Arlene said.
“What’s fun? One man’s Othello is another man’s tractor meet.”
“That makes no sense at all.”
“Look, Missy, I’m lord of this manor. It makes sense to me.”
“You’re not going to make this easy on me, are you, Balder?”
“Make what easier on you?”
“Coming by to make you feel better,” Arlene said.
“Unless you have a magnum bottle of scotch wrapped up in that flannel of yours, you’re wasting your time, girl Pollard,” Edwin said. He had some scotch.
“How about some lunch?”
“I detest food.”
“The art of film is dead.”
“We could go to the MoMA.”
“I’d rather congregate with bed bugs than that crowd.”
Arlene was quiet a moment. “You could just get over that book and have a life.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that,” Edwin said. He finished his scotch with one last pull. “If that was your last attempt at cheering me up, could you go now and save us the trouble of watching you wither into yourself?”
“I know how you feel, Edwin,” Arlene said.
“I doubt it.”
She took a drink. “I do. Have you ever heard to the band Non-Fiction Diction?”
“Do I look like I’d listen to a band such as that?”
“I guess not.” Arlene bit her lip. Edwin, through his anger and torment, found it to be a subtle and cute expression. “Well, I used to date, William Bond, the lead singer of that band.”
“No kidding. Non-Fiction Diction’s last album was called, For Arlene: May She Rot.”
“So?” Edwin said.
Arlene had more scotch. “I think all of that scotch has gone to your head. I’m Arlene. The album was totally about me, and how I ruined William’s life.”
“Women will get no sympathy here,” Edwin said.
“Except I didn’t ruin his life,” Arlene said. “He ruined mine by basically sleeping with every girl that he could, including my best friend, Audrey.”
“Good Lord. This story is turning into one of those teen dramas or telanovelas that the Hispanic cashiers at the Food City are always going on about.”
“I’m just saying that I understand. The whole album went into explicit detail about what William did. He somehow turned all of it, the cheating, everything, into my fault.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Edwin said, standing, tuning and walking toward the kitchen for another drink. “I see what you’re trying to do here, Pollard, and it won’t work drawing these comparisons. My life was torn to shreds by literature, a searing work of art, and not some teeny bopper’s fantasies being played out for the thumb typing, iTunes set.”
“It’s the number one album in the country,” Arlene said. “Rolling Stone gave it a five star review….and William is married to Audrey.”
Edwin stopped in his tracks. He turned around to look at Arlene, who had her chin almost buried in her chest. In an instant, the anger of the last three weeks began to slowly slip away. “Give me thirty minutes to get ready,” he said. “Lunch is on me.”