too many words by laura lemay

The All-Nighter

The sun rose that morning at 6:34 AM, but because Sean’s cubicle was in the center of the building it took another hour for him to realize it was actually daylight. By that time, by the time the fluorescent light had turned from blue-grey to grey-grey, he had gulped the last cold sip of his eighth cup of coffee, finished checking and rechecking his files, sent the last email message, and realized with a smug feeling of triumph that he had finished the project.

Many of his co-workers had been there earlier the evening before, but one by one they had all gone home, leaving him to complete the work overnight. He didn’t mind. He liked having the responsibility, being put in the position of shepherding the project to completion. It was tough work, but he was up for the challenge. His co-workers were grateful. His manager was especially grateful.

“Its good of you to do this,” Brian had said before going home around ten. “But after you get done, I want you to go home and stay home. Three days at least. I don’t want to see you until Tuesday.”

“Three days!” Sean protested. “What am I going to do with myself, with three whole days off?”

Brian shrugged. “Mow the lawn, paint the house, watch some football,” he suggested. “Spend some time with that family of yours.”

“Oh yeah,” Sean folded his arms, looking thoughtful. “I think I still have a family.”

He was joking, of course, his wife and daughter were just fine at home. But Brian gave him a stern look, a some-things-are-not-to-be-joked-about look. “OK, OK,” Sean laughed, brushing the moment aside. “I’ll take some time off. But don’t blame me if the company falls apart while I’m gone.”

Now the prospect of three days off sounded positively wonderful, he thought as he shuffled stuff around on his desk. His reward for having worked so hard. He would take his three days, get a lot of sleep, relax a whole lot, and be back at work first thing on Tuesday ready to start another project, make more professional conquests. This was going to be really great. And Caroline would be pleased, too.

He got up from his chair with a groan, stretched, twisted his head sideways, and the bones in his neck clacked together like toy blocks. There was a tight knot in his neck at the shoulder, and all the coffee he had drunk had harnessed a swarm of bees in his stomach. His clothes felt sticky and ill-fitting, as if during the night he had lost ten pounds and then rolled around in the dust for a while. He had, actually: after he had fallen asleep on his keyboard he had taken a short nap under his desk sometime between two and three AM before getting up, drinking more coffee and going back to work. These all-nighters had been a lot easier on the body, it seemed, when he was in college.

Easier on the body and easier on the mind. After everyone had left the night before the building had become awfully quiet and awfully dark. A few times he had thought he had heard noises from elsewhere in the office. He stood up once or twice to stretch, and there had been shadows on the walls, shadows that looked like something was running along the hallways between the cubicles. Once he had even gone off down the hall to investigate, but of course there was nothing there. He laughed, marked it up as caffeine-inspired paranoia, and turned the music up louder.

But all that was gone now, now that it was daylight and the project was finished. He quit his programs, shut down his computer, kicked his blanket under his desk. Time to go. He whistled down the hallway as he left, as he walked past row after row of empty cubicles. The closer he got to the door, the lighter he felt, the more the pressure of finishing the project washed away. It was done, done, done. Euphoria rose up excitedly in him and he almost bolted the last ten feet to the door, slamming it open into the sunshine, letting the fresh air stream in like the sudden breach of a submarine wall.

Outside the door he was surprised to find that the morning air was air, was light and damp and fresh, smelling of grass and juniper berries and marigolds. The day before had been a normal cold October day; it had even been raining a little. This was an even better end to the long night; the day felt almost as warm as springtime. He breathed deeply, felt his body awaken and regenerate from the long night. He stretched his arms out and let the sun warm his face. The buzz in his stomach began to drift away, into his hands and legs, and he suddenly felt like he could run all the way home, jump into the sky, sing a song, laugh at the top of his voice. It was a clear, bright, wonderful day, and he was awake and alive.

Behind him, the door shut with a click, and just as it latched he realized he had left his keys in his office. Shit. He turned back to the door, pulled his electronic card key out of his wallet and swiped it in the card reader, at the same time reaching for the door.

The door remained locked. He looked at his card and swiped it again. There was no reassuring electronic click as the system granted him access to the building. Nothing. He tried it three more times, to make sure. Nothing.

Well, that’s ironic, he thought. You spend the whole night at your office and your office decides you don’t belong there. Well, whatever, he thought, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. He only lived a few miles from work; Caroline could be over to pick him up in just a few minutes.

The screen on his cell phone was dark and grey. The battery was dead. What’s your problem, he said to it. I charged you just yesterday. He shook it, as if that would help, and thumbed the “on” button to make sure, but the phone belligerently remained dark. Damn. He put it back in his pocket, put his hands in his pockets, took them out, then picked a branch off the landscaping and mangled it as he thought about what to do.

A funny idea struck him. He only lived five miles or so from work. It was a nice day. He was tired, yes, but the beautiful day had refreshed him and he was feeling a lot better than he had an hour ago. If he walked quickly he could make it home in a couple of hours.

What a silly idea, he thought. Five miles. Why not just walk up the street to a pay phone, call up Caroline, have her come pick you up?

But it’ll be interesting, he argued with himself. You never walk. You never see anything. You just drive the two exits on the freeway between here and home all the time. It’ll be fun. It’ll be different.

OK then. He inhaled deeply once again, gathering his strength, planning his attack. Then he struck out across the parking lot, cut through the landscaping, and trampled a juniper on his way out to the sidewalk. Outside his office a whole row of identical office buildings all with the same landscaping lined up along the road, each with its own little sign lit up on a patch of lawn right in front. A lot of those signs had changed since last he had looked. But then, companies are born and die fast in the valley, and usually when he drove this route he was on his way home and not paying much attention to the route.

Now as he was walking, he could see that some of the parking lots had more cars in them, and some of the building had more lit windows than others. You could always tell the startups from the bigger companies that way. Startups had more dedicated workers, more likely to be in first thing in the morning on a weekend. Or, he supposed, the bigger companies were the ones who had employees with lives outside of work.

He had a life outside of work once, a few years back when he and Caroline had worked at the same company. That was where they had met (in the lunch line at the cafeteria he, burger, rare; she veggie burger, teriyaki sauce. He had loaned her a dollar when she had come up short at the cashier.) It seemed like back then every night they gone out to dinner, gone to a movie, left work behind each evening to enjoy each other’s company. Even after they were married, even after they worked in separate buildings, they still got out of the office at a normal hour, still got home in time for dinner.

Of course, that was before the big boom in the valley, and working for smaller companies was the thing. All the good opportunities were in smaller companies these days. Smaller companies had better pay and stock options and more interesting projects to work on. It was just that smaller companies required more personal commitment, and sometimes you didn’t make it home for dinner.

Past the office buildings he turned the corner onto Hillview Parkway, walked up and over the freeway. Even at this time of the day, early on a Saturday morning, the freeways were crowded with cars. He paused, hooked his fingers in the fence and looked down onto the freeway, watching the cars as they passed by. How many people in those cars were going on vacation, or coming back from vacation, going out to breakfast, or just going away? How many were going off to work? How many people, like him, were just now coming home from work?

Mischievously he spat through the fence, but missed hitting any cars. As he crossed the freeway offramp back along Hillview, a white BMW coming around the corner off the freeway too fast didn’t see him and almost hit him. Sean had to dart across the rest of the road and back up onto the curb, and the driver’s horn screaming in indignation, as if Sean was doing the driver a personal insult by getting in his way, making him slow down. Sean shook his head. What sort of hurry are you in this early on a Saturday morning, buddy?

The car continued on and then pulled into an office building just down the street. Aha, Sean thought. Another worker bee. Another important project to get done on the weekend. He forgave the angry BMW. Just the other week he had gone home for dinner, gone home early for once, but then got a phone call from a co-worker that some of the stuff he had been working on wasn’t working right.

“You’re going back to work?” Caroline had asked, a jug of milk in her hand. “But you just got here.”

“I have to,” he had explained, finishing up the last of his dinner. “This one bit I’ve been working needs to get done, and other people depend on it.”

“Oh,” Caroline said, and turned back to the refrigerator. The open door covered her face as she rearranged bottles on the shelves, but she was twisting the toe of one foot on the tile floor. She said something he didn’t hear, inside the refrigerator, and he asked her to repeat herself.

“What time do you think you’ll be home?” She repeated, as the door shut sharply behind her.

“Not too late, ten, eleven.”

“Long past Annie’s bedtime.” Caroline noted.

“Yeah. But I’ll be here in the morning.”

“Oh, good, I’m glad.”

Sean put his fork down on his plate. “Are you mad at me?” He knew she was mad at him.

“No, not particularly,” she denied it. “I just wish you thought as much of us as you did of that job.”

“I do,” Sean said, standing up and going over to her. “I do. I’m not working this hard to avoid you, you know that. I’d much rather be here with you and Annie.” He wrapped his arms around her momentarily, rested his chin on top of her head. She sighed. “But,” he continued, letting her go again, “with you out of work right now, one of us has to make a living. So here we are.” He let her go again, reached for his jacket and his bag. “I’ll see you later tonight.” He kissed her once, hard, went to where Annie was burbling over her mashed peas and kissed the one clean spot on her forehead, and then escaped out into the garage.

He really hadn’t meant to run away so often from Caroline and from Annie, he thought. That really wasn’t the intent. Not at all. Well, not really. OK, sometimes. At the time they had Annie they had also moved into the new house, and Caroline had decided to take some time off from work, and suddenly everything seemed to confusing, like nothing in his life could be planned or organized anymore. Caroline seemed to be handling it all well enough, but she was always better at managing change than he was. And she seemed to expect so much of him sometimes.

But when he went to work, then things were better, easier to get his head around. He could just sit down in his cube and focus on what he needed to do that day, that week, that month, for the project. And it wasn’t like he was abandoning Caroline and Annie altogether, after all. If he did the project well, the company would be successful, he would be successful, the family would be successful, and then it would all work out in the end. So he’d miss spending some time with Caroline. So he’d miss a few evenings with Annie when she was a baby. He’d make up for it all later on. Its not like she could even recognize who he was right now anyhow, right?

The street he was supposed to turn off was around here somewhere, he thought, looking ahead, trying to remember. Was it Franklin to Pine to Sycamore? Or Greer to Carson to Pine to Sycamore? It was so easy from the freeway side. Maybe walking home wasn’t such a great idea after all.

At any rate, he definitely wanted to get the hell off of Stevens Creek Boulevard. While he had been thinking he had walked a whole lot of it, and had seen nothing but the same sorts of stores: fourteen fast food joints, five furniture stores having seemingly interminable going out of business sales, twelve gas stations, six billboards, nine automobile dealers, and a Home Depot that took up three blocks and fourteen thousand gallons of bright orange paint. (That Home Depot sure was different, almost its own country in its hugeness, and actually, Sean didn’t even remember it being there before, although these things seemed to pop up all the time all over the valley. But you’d think he would have remembered three city blocks being leveled on the main drag right by his house. Strange. Maybe he was spending too much time at work lately.)

Somehow when you drive Stevens Creek Boulevard it all blurs together, it all just turns into a smear of modern commercial Americana. You can ignore it in a way because you’re just passing through or you’re looking for something specific; you’re on your way to the mall or the freeway exit or the Honda dealer or the Home Depot. Its designed that way, its built for driving. There’s nothing really facing out on the street, there’s just big signs sticking up like trees, in lieu of trees, so you can spot what you need from a few blocks away and be ready to make your turn into the parking lot.

But when you’re walking it, there’s no blending, its all stark and businesslike and ugly. Its all the same buildings with slightly different colors selling slightly different stuff, going on and on and on away into the hills, crass and boring and lonely. There are no people on Stevens Creek Boulevard. There is only stuff to buy. It was depressing, and he was in no mood to be depressed.

He turned right onto Roble, which wasn’t his street, but if he cut across a few streets he’d probably find something he’d recognize. Almost immediately the road changed from the busy commercialism of Stevens Creek to a more quiet suburban neighborhood, with little 50’s ranch houses all lined up in rows, with hedges of junipers and little gardens and lawns out front. One of them had a whole lot of yellow daffodils in front of it. Daffodils! In October! That was a neat trick, Sean thought, and went over to admire them.

This was a neighborhood like the one he and Caroline lived in when they were first married; not an exciting neighborhood, but a nice neighborhood. The house they had rented was small, and clean, and an easy commute to the company they worked at. It had allowed them to save for the house they had eventually bought, the one they lived in now, the one in the newer community, the one with the extra bedrooms, close to the parks, the one that was so suitable for growing families, so suitable for children, and they had risen to that challenge right away, hadn’t they.

Which was not to say he regretted having a baby. Oh, no, he adored Annie, adored her to death. The timing was just kind of off. Kids are expensive, buying houses is expensive, and then when your wife decides to take a year off from her job, that’s really tough on the husband. But he had gotten the job offer from the new company, the startup, for a lot more money, a lot more perks. That, for once, was great timing.

Caroline had been nervous about it, though. “I hear stories about startups,” she had said. “I hear they swallow up all your time,” she had said. “I hear stories of people sleeping under their desks, never spending any time at home. That’s fine for people in their twenties, with no family, with no one to come home to, but not for people like us. I would really like you not to take this job if I’m never going to see you,” she said, frowning, and she got that little crease in her forehead that he loved, that she got when she was thinking of some hard problem, when she was considering a tough decision, or when she was angry at him.

He had laughed at her. “A job can only eat up all your time if you let it,” he had said. “You can get the job done during the day if you manage your time right, if you don’t mess around at work. I’ll still be home for dinner every night. I promise.”

But Sean had broken that promise in a matter of weeks.

The sun was high in the sky now, and Sean tugged his dampening shirt irritably away from his chest. He really hadn’t dressed for this unseasonably warm weather. As he walked from one block to the next, trying to walk in the general direction where he thought his house was, he tried to stay in the shade underneath the big oak and pepper trees that were planted in the medians in between the sidewalks and the streets. A number of blocks didn’t even have sidewalks, or if they did people had parked their cars up on them so it was difficult to walk directly from one side of the block to another. He had to weave in and out of the street, and as cars passed by their drivers stared at him as if he was some sort of curiosity. Look! Someone walking! In San Jose? How can that be! We don’t have pedestrians here! They ran them all out in the 50’s! Hey you! Get out of our neighborhood! We don’t need your kind here!

Occasionally he did see others of his kind, but temporary others, morning joggers, or mothers with young children or baby carriages, usually walking alone. Getting out of the house. Caroline did that sometimes, she said; sometimes just getting outside for a few minutes felt like an accomplishment. These mothers looked at him suspiciously, tried to cross the street without looking as if they were avoiding him. He smiled at them, tried to look friendly, like the nice young suburban professional dad that he was. As the morning wore on, though, and became warmer he was sure he probably looked worse and worse. God, he needed a shower. Now his clothes felt like they were hanging damply off him, and his hair was probably sticking up in awkward directions. He ran a hand through it, but that probably made it worse. He tried to look invisible.

Each time he came to a block he kept hoping he would come to a street name he recognized. Surely when he turned off of Stevens Creek that if he just kept going in a roughly diagonal direction he would eventually run into a street that he knew, or something that he would recognize, right? But so far all the streets had blended into each other, all the houses looked exactly the same, all the street names were completely ordinary. Why the hell did they live in the suburbs, anyhow? In the city you could just call a Goddamn cab, get a ride home, no matter where you were.

Cab, there was an idea, he thought, and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. But the battery was still dead, and he put it back with a sigh. Maybe if I went back to Stevens Creek, he thought, I could find a pay phone there. He turned back in that rough direction. But a few blocks later he came to the end of a cul-de-sac, with houses all around, blocking the way out. For a while he stood at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, wondering how that got there. There were no cul-de-sacs in this part of town when he lived here, he thought, bewilderedly. Perhaps someone put it there just to confuse him.

Face it, my friend, you are well and truly lost, he thought, and the knot in his shoulder piped up in agreement. He turned away from the cul-de-sac, turned to the left. Just a few more blocks, a few more blocks to walk, and then if I’m still lost I’ll knock on a door and ask for help. He was reluctant to do that, reluctant to intrude on the personal lives of anyone in these nice neat little houses. You just didn’t do that around here. Particularly not when you were a sleepy unshaven rumbled looking man wandering around on the streets; it just wasn’t right.

The blocks were long ones, and each one seemed even longer than the last. His feet began to drag, and by the third block he needed to stop and rest. The caffeine in his system had worn off a long while ago, leaving only a tense ache in his stomach and a long weariness in all his muscles. His shoulder throbbed, a tight soreness, and he kneaded it with one hand, hanging his head and staring at his toes as he walked. Why hadn’t he just found a Goddamn pay phone early on? He could have been home by now. By now he could have slept and have been up and having iced tea on the patio in the sun with Caroline, watching his daughter play with her toys in the grass. He smiled ruefully at the thought, grew angry with himself. Why did I have to walk all the way home? At the corner he looked up at the street sign.

Sycamore. This was his street.

A sudden burst of energy, a sudden peal of a bell inside his head. He looked at his watch. He could be home by lunchtime. He turned onto his own street, suddenly recognizing some of the houses here. There was the grey stucco house with the hedges out front, although the hedges looked taller now, and better trimmed. There was the bad remodel right next to it, a strange combination of 1950’s tract house on the bottom and Mediterranean villa on the top. There was the obsessive rose garden, and there was the gardener herself, pruning her bushes. Had they been in full bloom before? “Hello!” He called cheerfully out to her from the other side of the street, and she stopped and stared at him as he went by.

He grinned. Now he didn’t care how he looked, didn’t care who thought he was weird for walking in San Jose. He would be home soon. He would take a BATH, and he would lure Caroline in with him. And then he would take Caroline and Annie away for the weekend, away from the valley, away to the country, so they could be together, really together, as a family for awhile. He’d call Brian, take a few vacation days. Brian would understand. Brian was always telling him to take some time off. Caroline was right, he was spending too much time at work, too much time in his dark little hole of a cubicle. He had a wife! And a daughter! The whole point of the job was to make a better life for all of them, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing them for the sake of the job. What had he been thinking? Suddenly he missed both of them terribly, wanted to be away from this horrible anonymous sameness, wanted nothing more than to be home.

Now he could see his house, the white one with the big bush in front, and he almost sprinted the last few blocks up to the door. Strangely enough, Caroline’s car wasn’t in the driveway, and the house was dark. Maybe she had gone out for groceries or something. No matter. He jogged up the front path to the door, pulling his house keys out of his pocket (those, at least, he had not left in the office) and slipping one into the lock. He’d take a shower and a nap, maybe get something to eat while she was gone, and surprise them when she came home.

Except that the key would not turn in the lock.

He pulled the key out and looked at it. That was the key. He backed up and looked at the number on the door. This was his house. He put the key back in the lock and wiggled it; no, it really would not turn in the lock.

He went around to the back of the house, turning keys on the ring until he found the back door key. But this one wouldn’t work either. Had Caroline changed the locks while he was gone? But he was only gone a day!

Something really weird was going on here. He peered into the windows; same furniture, same wallpaper, yes, this was his house. He couldn’t break in, the house was alarmed, there would be cops swarming all over it in a matter of minutes. Breaking into your own house. That would be embarrassing.

OK, he thought, returning to the front of the house. Caroline would be home. Eventually she would come home. He sat down in the doorway, off to the side where he was partially blocked from view behind the bush, so he could not be seen from the street. I’ll just wait, and then we’ll figure out what’s going on here. At least I’m home.

He must have dozed off, because the shadows were long on the lawn when next he realized what was going on, heard the sound of a car in the driveway and heard Caroline’s voice around the corner. Caroline. Caroline was home.

He felt better now that he had slept a little. He was still achy and uncomfortable, but all that would go away. Caroline was home. He was going to surprise her. This was going to be great.

He hardly recognized the Caroline who came around the corner. He had left his Caroline early yesterday morning, still in a robe, with longer hair and no make-up. This Caroline had her hair cut short, although it looked like she still kept pushing it behind her ears all the time in that habit she had. She was dressed smartly, dressed almost well enough for work, although she had stopped working when Annie was born, hadn’t planned to go back to work for another year yet. And it was the weekend, usually she just wore jeans and t-shirts on the weekends. Plus she was wearing lipstick! He wasn’t sure he had ever seen her wearing lipstick in the whole time they had been married.

“Caroline?” He asked as this woman came up the walk, leading a strange little girl up the pathway; a little girl carrying a little stuffed bear. Caroline stopped short in the path, gripped the little girl’s hand and took a step backward. “Who are you?” she asked. “What do you want?”

Sean laughed, this comment just another bizarre surreal moment on top of a whole day of them. Electronics going dead, signs on offices changing randomly, Home Depots and Cul-de-sacs appearing out of nowhere, and now his own wife not recognizing him. “Caroline, come on, I’m your husband. Its been a really weird day. I locked my car keys in the office. I got really lost on the way home. My keys don’t work in the door. All I want is a shower and a nap.”

A small twitch at the corner of his wife’s mouth broke the fine line of lipstick; a crease appeared in her forehead as she frowned at him.

“My husband?” Caroline said bitterly. The strange little girl peeked out at him from behind her legs, stared at him with blue eyes that looked just like his. “I don’t think so,” she continued. “You’re not my husband. My husband left for work three years ago. And he never came home.”