"You think Hardin is dead or alive?" Sig asks.
"I don't know," I say.
We're standing by a trash barrel in the back. I look around. The family, friends and gawkers are standing in little huddles, or seated at tables. I don't see any other co-workers.
"Anything could have happened," I say.
"Anything could have happened," I repeat.
Sig stares into space.
There must be at least a hundred people here. We're in a banquet room at the Boardwalk Sheraton. They call the thing an *Awareness Raiser.* I guess the family is afraid nobody cares much about finding out what happened to Hardin.
It's hot in here, and you'd think I could get a cold drink. And I could get a cold drink, but I'd have to pay for it. You'd think if I took the time to come and support them and all that, at least I could have a cold drink, it's so hot in here. But I'd have to buy a Diet Coke. There's nothing free here. The *Awareness Raiser* seems to double as a fund raiser, also. There are fishbowls on the tables, where you can drop cash, or checks made payable to *The Hardin Family Fund.*
"Which one is his wife?" Sig asks.
I scan the room.
"The fat one standing by the table next to that big photo board thing."
"Which fat one?"
"The fat one with the fat red hair."
"A cow," he says. "But there are worse. But no, anything could not have happened."
Why did I come to this? I suppose I hoped to see somebody cry.
"When Hardin was here," I say, "when he was known and accounted for, did anyone give him a second thought? We worked with him for almost six years. Let's say we worked the same shift two or three times a week. Sixteen to twenty-fours a week, for six years. That's a lot time to be around somebody. . .but he made absolutely no impression, am I right?"
"He was a boring cunt. He'd stick a cell phone in your face and make you watch videos of his kid's baseball. 'Look at that swing!' Bragging about his kid's single in a little league game."
"But now that he's unknown, he has substance."
"The Unknown God."
"He's no longer a human zero. He's distinguished by being extinguished. He used to be a nothing that nobody would think twice about. Now everybody wonders about him. That's all people talk about at work. He's no longer human. He's mythic."
But after saying that, I look more closely at all the people in the room. They really don't seem. . .anything. Some people paid for food and/or drink and they stuff their faces. One guy is yawning. Others talk. . .nod. . .scratch. . .wander around.
"Actually, this all seems kinda blah, you know?"
"I mean, for all the hype, all the talk, the drama, the big mystery, there's no. . .there's nothing here. No special psychic energy, you know? Might as well be a meeting of the zoning commission."
"It is what it is," Sig says. "A fat woman's husband has gone missing. It's not the Empty Tomb."
Sig is staring at the wife.
"Would you fuck her?" he asks.
"I don't know. Maybe. If she cried a lot."
We don't talk. Nothing happens. I don't even see anything. We're just here, stuck. It lasts thirty seconds, a minute. If life is the ability to relate to the environment, then we are dead.
It is Sig who comes back to life, first:
"Why are we standing by this garbage can, anyway? Let's sit down, already."
I follow Sig to a table where a man and a woman are already seated.
"These chairs taken?" Sig asks.
"No, go ahead," the man says.
I notice there's a check in the fishbowl. I wonder if it's from these people. I can't see the amount.
Sig stares at the man and woman. They seem a little uncomfortable.
"Uh, Mark Gibbs," the man says. "And this is my wife, Emily."
"Hi," the woman says, with an obviously forced smile.
"Emily Gibbs?" Sig says, as if he knows the name.
"That's me," she says, straining to hold the smile.
"Did you go to Scott High School?" Sig asks.
"Scott High School? No. I mean, I don't even know where that is."
"I knew an Emily Gibbs at Scott. I don't remember faces, but I remember names. I can remember the name of everybody I went to school with. No idea what any of them look like, but I remember their names. There was an Emily Gibbs."
Sig is now staring just at the woman, this Emily Gibbs person.
"There was a girl named Emily Gibbs at Scott High," Sig says to her.
"Gibbs is her married name," the man, the husband, cuts in. "She wasn't Gibbs in high school." He seems a little irritated, for some reason.
The table falls silent. The woman, this Emily Gibbs, has a beverage, which she sips at. After each little sip, she looks up and forces a smile.
I see the wife--the cow, Hardin's wife, not Emily Gibbs. She's making the rounds of the tables, stopping and chatting briefly at each. She's got three tables to go before she hits us. There's nothing particularly troubled about her appearance.
"What was your name in high school?" Sig demands of the woman.
"What? Oh." A quick glance at the man, the husband. "Driscoll. I was Emily Driscoll."
Sig shakes his head.
"Nobody named Emily Driscoll at Scott."
"Oh gosh, wouldn't that have been a crazy coincidence!" she says, trying to be agreeable.
"There are no coincidences," Sig tells her.
"No. Everything is what it is."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" the man, the husband, asks disagreeably.
Sig sighs, exasperated he has to explain something so obvious.
"Coincidence can only occur in a universe of possibilities, where one thing can happen as easily as another. But as we all should have observed from an early age, we live in an impossible universe. Only one thing ever happens, and so. . ."
I tune out. Not out of disrespect to Sig, but because I want to focus my thought on poor Emily Driscoll. I want to telepathically broadcast my sympathy. That she has to suck this Gibbs fellow's cock, has had to choke down his ejaculate. Victimized. Tricked, or so beaten down she settled, or for whatever reason, she finds herself chained to this Gibbs. And yet she can still summon a smile, however artificial. I haven't smiled in decades. God bless Emily.
[I will not describe her appearance, which would only prejudice the reader.]
Yes, it's true, Gibbs is also a victim. Just as we are all victims. Yet instead of seeking to console Emily Driscoll, he has only further victimized her.
"Mark! Emily! It means so much to see you here!"
The cow is at our table.
"Oh Caroline!" Emily Driscoll says. "I can't imagine. I just can't imagine."
"Everybody says it," the Gibbs fellow says, "but if there is anything we can do. Really. Anything at all."
The cow closes her eyes, nods her head. "Thank you. Thank you, both."
"You got a warm pair of gloves?" Sig asks.
"Gloves?" the cow asks. She seems puzzled.
"If you need some gloves, just say so. I can get you a pair."
"Well. . .thank you. But. . .it's the middle of summer, so. . ."
"Summer doesn't last forever," Sig reminds her. "Nothing lasts forever. It will be cold and dark, soon."
"Excuse me?" the Gibbs fellow says. He seems to be getting upset.
The cow cocks her head, squints at Sig. "Do you know Martin?"
"That's Hardin," I tell Sig. "Martin was his first name." I address the cow. "We worked with your husband. Everybody there pretty much just goes by last name."
Nothing happens, again.
The cow, suddenly looking old and tired, stands behind the Gibbs fellow and Emily Driscoll. Gibbs has a frown. Emily is staring at her drink. Some clear liquid with ice in a clear plastic cup. It's so hot in here.
"Martin never really liked to talk about work," the cow says softly, so softly.
"Because the fucking place sucks," Sig says.
"What is your PROBLEM?" the Gibbs fellow says.
"Mark!" says Emily Driscoll.
The Gibbs fellow glares at Emily Driscoll.
"What? This guy is. . .you don't talk like that. Not in this kind of situation. Are you stupid?"
All of Emily Driscoll's pretend smiles and good cheer melt away as her face reddens.
The cow looks done in.
"We've met before," I say to her in an attempt to advance the conversation. "I'm sure you don't remember, but it was at Erskine's retirement party."
"You went to that asshole's retirement party?" Sig asks.
The Gibbs fellow bolts from his chair, grabs Emily Driscoll's drink. "Come on. We're moving to another table." He turns to the cow. "Caroline, I think you should join us." The cow nods. Emily Driscoll rises in obedience.
"That guy thinks he's better than us," Sig says as the Gibbs fellow, the cow and Emily Driscoll walk away.
"Uh, he only thinks he's better than 'us' if I am guilty by association."
"That bastard wouldn't give you the time of day even if you were standing next to a sun dial."
"Huh? That doesn't--"
I don't even bother to finish the thought. I don't care. It's hot in here. And this *event,* whatever it is, has been a real dud. What was the point of it? A man has been missing six weeks, and so a bunch of people meet in a hotel and do nothing?
Sig reaches into the fishbowl, removes the check, looks at it, laughs.
"Twenty bucks! Mr. Better Than Us is only good for twenty!" Sig laughs again. "What's Hardin's old lady gonna do with twenty bucks?"
Sig's right about that. A check for twenty dollars. But a man or a woman will turn to his or her god in a time of trouble.
Poor Hardin. A life disappeared. By either death or desperation. One little life. What value?
"What value did Hardin's life have, anyway?" I ask Sig.
He drops the check back in the fishbowl.
"What value? Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows."
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