Jilly Rudolph was out on the deck when I woke up. It was three in the afternoon and she was out there flipping through the local newspaper. She was a woman from my office, midthirties, lanky, charming, a close friend who had stuck with me when I was dismissed from the design shop in Houston where we both worked. And she liked me, which made her a special favorite of mine. She’d had a short and lousy marriage in her twenties and hadn’t gone back to the altar. I was nearly two decades older, twice married, and a partner at Point Blank Design, at least until the other partners decided I was past my “use by” date and sent me into early retirement with a silver plate engraved with fine sentiments and thanks for almost thirty years of service. To say I was shocked would understate it. You do something that long and you figure you’ve probably made the cut. But the young people will have their way.
I had been living in Kemah, halfway between Houston and Galveston, and working from home a lot, so upon my sacking I repaired to the condo to lick my wounds and figure out what might be the next move, assuming there was one. I’d lived there since the last years of my second marriage, so it was comfortable enough, even if I wasn’t. I didn’t fish or hunt, I didn’t collect stamps or books or baseball cards, I didn’t cook, garden, or build model airplanes, so when they let me go I was, to say the least, at a loss. I suppose I could have looked for work at another shop, but I felt a little long in the tooth for that, and I had a decent safety net, financially. So I did nothing, and doing nothing I was very pleased that Jilly made a habit, after my embarrassing fall from grace, of visiting more often than I’d imagined she might. She was a quiet woman, kind of stoical, wry, what people call older than her years, and we had been close at the office and were closer now. I was grateful. That, too, understates the thing.
I went out onto the deck of the condo, gave Jilly a hug, and settled into the chair next to hers. Even with the sun surrounded by clouds it was way too bright.
“Visiting the halt and the lame?” I said.
“I am indeed,” she said, closing the paper and sliding it my way. “A genuine act of mercy for which I get rewards in the next life. You, on the other hand, look positively disreputable.”
“I’m fine,” I said, sticking a hand through my hair. “That’s just my hair. It’s waking up. We went to bed at seven.”
“How glamorous,” she said. “You must be refreshed by this hour.”
“I missed you,” I said. “I do every time you go home. Didn’t you just go home a couple days ago? Not to be forward.”
“I did,” she said. “To carry out my responsibilities. To spy on your former employers—my current employers—while living it up with them and all my other friends in the big town. All the while clinging to a paycheck.”
“Well, I missed you while you were gone. Did I say that already?” I said.
“You did. Thanks,” she said. “I found a kid who writes code. He’s sweet and ridiculously young. In the teen area.”
“In the little-brother way, yes,” she said. “What’s news?”
“My neighbor, Forest Ng, died in a car crash,” I said. “His name is spelled ‘Ng’ but pronounced ‘Eng’—I looked it up.”
“Everybody knows that,” she said.
“I liked him. He crashed his car over by one of the marinas. In the early morning hours. A ‘shots rang out’ thing.”
She tapped the paper. “If there’s a picture in here I didn’t see it.”
“It was, apparently, a completely accidental car accident.”
This was March, still bearable out. Jilly was in jeans and a white button-down shirt and wore a scent that made the world around her seem wonderful and mysterious. I couldn’t help feeling lucky. In the waning days of my tenure at the design shop she was what made it worthwhile.