Houseman clumped up out of the basement with a bag of flour over his shoulder, like an underworld creature performing a dread task or whatever. Hauling malignant tumors to the concupiscent I guess.
I pushed the gin and tonic I’d just poured sort of out of the line of sight. On Saturday mornings we had an unspoken rule in the back-of-house at the bakery that it was okay to start drinking at 7:30—but since it remained completely unspoken, and I appeared to be the only one who indulged the rule, and might have been the only one who knew about it, it seemed best to keep it quiet. That’s the hard thing about unspoken rules. Houseman’s eye fell on me with force.
I grabbed the sprayer and tried to seem more or less utterly absorbed in my dishwashing.
Houseman had been across the room, but now here was his finger jabbing me in the ribs, like a detachable or spiritual finger sent to torment me from a distance. He turned the clumpy thug routine off with a switch. He moves from one state to another without even trying. Potato-footed to faun-limbed in the blink of an eye. A faun with a meaty finger buried in my ribs.
“Byron is unhappy with you,” he said, widening his eyes at the end to impress me. “He’s muttering about things he’d do if he had a hammer.”
“Oh,” I said. “Like the folk song? It’s good to know that even ruthless thugs take an interest in preserving the national heritage.”
“I think he suspects you.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“Of something. I don’t know. He mutters.”
“He would. He’s suspicious. When you’ve got suspicion, everything looks like a nail. Especially if you’re wishing you had a hammer.”
“You’re doing a great impression of a nail. Stay loose and light. Don’t piss Byron off today. He seems tense. He said he wants you to go downstairs when you get half a chance.”
I’m not a brave man, but I’ve never really been put to the test.
I once took a wrong turn in Philadelphia looking for a cheese shop that sold particularly excellent pecorino, and ended up stuck behind an Eldorado whose captain and first mate harbored it in the middle of the street and unloaded groceries for what seemed like five-hundred weeks, at a rate of about a head of lettuce per half-hour.
The streets around me were crowded with a diverse group of children who looked as though they’d never actually eaten the flesh of a scared white guy, but would try anything once. I survived the ordeal by never making eye contact with a particularly hostile sub-group of eight-year olds as they crowded around pointing and shouting some pretty racially charged slogans. The Eldorado sailed on, seemingly out of boredom, and I drove straight to a health-food store, then purchased and drank a China-Cola and started to feel really safe again.
The point is, I don’t like going into the basement if I know Byron’s down there, due to a natural inclination to avoid conflict. And a natural fear of boiling hot basements that smell like sulfur, and which are generally considered to contain six of the nine circles of hell.
Houseman scattered ingredients into the mixer and flipped it on. He stared at the shelf which contained vanilla, grand marnier, and impossibly expensive chocolate.
“Why would we ever need chocolate this expensive?” he said. “Do you know how expensive this chocolate is?”
I shrugged. Houseman became instructive.
“A pound of it wouldn’t quite be enough for a downpayment on something with six bedrooms and a guest-house on a substantial acreage, but it’d get you most of the way towards something modest.”
I shrugged again. My shrugs were lies. I knew how expensive the chocolate was, but I had reasons for not telling Houseman that I knew how expensive the chocolate was. Or I had one reason: Emily.
I saw Emily for the first time one morning several weeks previous, and she had one of those faces that inspires men to make thirty dollar cups of hot-chocolate and give them to the owner of the face for free, so that maybe the face will keep coming to the bakery so that the dishwasher—and occasional bagel-maker and rogue hot-chocolatier—can believe in hope and joy and beauty again. If my reckoning was correct, Emily had consumed over five hundred dollars of hot-chocolate for free.
I realized suddenly that I hadn’t reckoned this amount. The thought surprised me to such an extent that I actually uttered the word “snap” with real feeling. “Snap,” I said, meaning every ounce and nuance of the syllable. That had to be what Byron wanted to talk to me about. He was onto me. And I’d stolen more than five hundred dollars right out of his pocket.
The sulfur smell of the basement wafted up. I heard footsteps. Byron. Coming up out of the basement.
But the voice saying “Walt?” wasn’t Byron. That was a voice from the front-of-house, wreathed in music and light. That was Emily.