When he finally made the phone call, Tyler had trouble sounding as though he weren’t out of breath. He could hear the phone ringing on the other end and that only made it worse, so when his friend Nathan picked up the line all Tyler could say was “wait a minute” while he covered the phone and tried to calm down.
“Tyler. You okay? Is this Tyler?”
“It’s me. Just give me a second.”
“You been working out?” Nathan asked.
“No. Just. Listen. I need you to do me a favor.”
“What is it? What’s up? You okay?”
“I can’t tell you the details. I mean I could, but just — because, this is strange. I can’t explain it. Just do what I say.”
They lived in the same condominium complex, on the extreme ends of a south facing side that looked out on a golf course. Towering pines sheltered the 15th green, just beyond a split rail fence.
“Turn off the lights in your place and look out your kitchen window, towards the golf course.”
“Julie’s got a catering gig tomorrow. She’s not going to want the lights out.”
“Call me back then. When she goes to bed.”
“What’s going on, Tyler?”
“Look, I can’t explain it. Just call me back.”
Things were disappearing, first of all. Tyler Bardot wasn’t particularly organized, but he had a few key spots in every place he ever lived, a few routine cubby holes and desk organizers that more or less held the week’s vital tools. The toe nail clipper, for example, was always with the marking pens in the second slot of his upper desk drawer. He made a point of putting it back in exactly the same place. ”Because,” he could hear himself explaining to no one, “my toenails are weird. They grow up, not out, and they catch my on my socks if they get too long and I always — I mean ALWAYS — put it back with the marking pens. And it’s just gone.”
“People steal toe nail clippers?” Nathan asked.
“I know,” Tyler said. “Sounds crazy.”
“It does sorta.”
Tyler lived alone. There was no cleaning lady. No roommate. No girlfriend. The condominium manager had a key, for emergencies. Nathan and Julie had been over for drinks the other day, along with a few other co-workers — but Tyler actually locked his study on those occasions. A few years before, at a similar party, he had driven to town for beer and he found his co-workers gathered around his desktop computer upon his return. They were looking at his tax return. ”You left it on the screen,” one of them said. ”And a few other things,” one of them giggled.
“You invite scrutiny,” Nathan told him. ”You’re not confessional enough. People want to see what you’re hiding.”
“It still sucks,” Tyler protested. ”Royally. I would never do that. Walk into someone’s bedroom office? Tap the space key, look at peoples’ crap? I just wouldn’t even think to do that.”
“People are bottom-feeding trash fish,” Nathan said. “The sooner you understand that — ”
“The sooner I start locking my doors and putting all my crap away.”
There was some professional jealousy at play. Tyler didn’t really do much but work and work out. As a result, he kept getting promoted. He never claimed to be a genius — just a grind, just a guy who knew crappy code when he saw it. But, as his friend Nathan observed, he never really got drunk, never complained or belly-ached, never made public confessions, and people mistook it all for arrogance.
“What happened to suffering in silence,” Tyler asked Nathan once. “Was that ever the norm? I mean, look at these people now. Look at our staff. Every status message is some lamentation–some, some call to be placed at the top of the grief pyramid. It’s disgusting.”
No doubt Tyler must have picked up some of this distaste from listening to his single mother complain about work, about how much she really loved people, and how infrequently that love was ever returned. ”I guess that’s the way it is with givers,” she told her son. ”You give and give and give and give and no one gives back.” As a child he saw his confessor status as necessary in their small family, but there was a point, as an adolescent when he realized his mother could confess all of this to a wall and she would be just as content with her monologue. He became a tad more sophisticated, as well, at seeing through her problem. She smothered men. The neediness came out large and early. She would bring someone home and start planning trips 18 months ahead of time, and then, within a month, he could hear his mother crying in the bedroom, or breaking things. And there would be another confession about being a “giver.”
As a manager, his contempt for confession proved an asset, because he could sense an excuse coming months ahead of time. If you worked for Tyler, and you really felt there was a reason why your piece of the plug-in wasn’t ready, that you had valid grounds for needing more time, when you began to speak, that look on Tyler’s face made your words feel fat and oily. ”Why are you throwing up in my office?” Tyler seemed to be saying.
“Right,” people said, correcting themselves. ”I’ll have it for you.”
After a few years of meeting and beating deadlines, and making small fortunes every quarter for the company, Tyler had fifty people working for him, not counting the sub-contractors. He was making enough to buy a home, but his tastes were simple. The condominium worked. It was close to the office. There was no woman in the picture, no one to set up shop with. He had become a Puritan of the digital age. He worked, and he worked-out and then he worked out some more. He believed — if this weren’t too grand a conclusion — that he had found his place.
But he was forgetting things, and this was beginning to unnerve him. A few weeks before Nathan was standing in the office with the twins, two sub-contractors fresh out of Oberlin, David and Derek Smallwood, who were bearing in on him with a wolf-like stare of disbelief.
“I’m confused,” Nathan pitched in for the twins, by way of agreement. “You specifically said you didn’t want to use any of Jensen’s code on this one.”
“No,” Tyler said, exasperated. “I said I wanted ONLY Jensen’s code. I was very specific.”
The twins looked at each other and then at Nathan, as though they were stunned, on the verge of a loony laugh.
David took a breath. “Some rights or usage thing–”
“Yes,” Derek chimed in, “you were worried we didn’t have the rights.”
“What?” Tyler said. “We OWN Jensen. We own everything he does.”
The four men looked at each other, as though someone, somewhere was inventing a new truth, or forgetting an old one.
“Look,” Nathan volunteered. “Okay, maybe we didn’t hear you correctly. Only Jensen’s code?”
“Only Jensen,” David said.
“ONLY Jensen,” Derek said. “Right? Only Jensen’s.” This attempt on the part of the one twin to lighten up the tension misfired. They smiled at each other, then went grim.
“As I said before,” Tyler said. “Jensen’s. Use Jensen’s library. Now, let’s see what you can do.”
The three men left the office slowly, awkwardly. Nathan leaned back in with a curious look on his face.
“Maybe…” he said.
“Nothing. Never mind. No big.”
When they were gone, Tyler looked at the ceiling of his office with a furrowed brow. He ripped through his outgoing email file to see if he had documented the conversation. Nothing. But that was unusual too. He always put it in writing. He was one of those managers who always summarized and documented, so much so that he was chided for it once, by a board member. “This time it worked in our favor,” the old fellow told him. “But I’ve seen it go the other way, when we make a mistake.”
“We don’t make mistakes,” Tyler had responded, laughing. “We write the most efficient code in the industry.”
“And that’s why I’m talking to the right people about you.”
Tyler’s good memory turned into a frown. “How does ‘Only Use Jensen’,” he said to himself, “become ‘Don’t Use any Jensen at all?”
Across the sea of glass and cubicles that represented his department, Tyler could see Nathan and the twins looking at a computer screen. One of the twins was laughing. They were all laughing, even his old friend Nathan Kennedy.
Later that evening, when they were working out, Nathan was wearing a kind of cheerfulness that bothered him. It seemed to be saying, “don’t worry about losing your mind, old man.”
“I’m still reeling from that Jensen thing,” Tyler said.
“Don’t worry about it. We all get mixed up from time to time.”
Tyler grimaced. He powered through the rest of his rep, put down the dumbbell, and said, “Look. I’m not mixed up. This project actually needs Jensen’s code. I would never categorically say, “Don’t Use Jensen.” It’s impossible.”
“They say,” Nathan began, “that memory isn’t really some hard and fixed thing. We remember what seems plausible to us.”
“Damn it, Nathan. I’m not mis-remembering this thing.”
“Okay. Okay. Fine.”
“You still don’t.”
“Look,” Nathan said. “I remember it differently. Am I supposed to lie about it? The twins remember it differently too. Three against one.”
Tyler bit his lip.
“What about your email?” Nathan asked. “You always document a meeting.”
“Well,” Nathan said. “There you go. Let’s get to the pecs. You think you can manage 320 today, like last time?”
“Stop. I didn’t do 320 last time.”
“Are you losing it, man? You did 320.”
Tyler paused. “This isn’t funny.”
“Check your email, old man. You probably documented it.”
When he got back home, Tyler sat down in his kitchen, alone. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and started pulling off his clothing, first the shoes, then the shirt, then his socks, and as he was pulling off his right sock, a thread wound itself around a toenail. He felt for the thread, untangled it, gritted his teeth and then walked down the hall to his study. He kept it locked. He pulled the key chain from around his neck, walked over to his top desk drawer and looked for the toe nail clipper in its normal spot with the marking pens.
He rubbed his eyes and re-focused. It was missing. He lifted the organizer, shifted paper-clips, brushed aside combs and cuff links and his high school ring. Gone. Nowhere.
“What the–” Tyler said to himself.
A few minutes later, he was holding a shoe and staring at the door when Julie, Nathan’s wife, tapped lightly and walked in with a tray full of dinner.
“Salmon Shioyaki,” Julie said. “Sauteed Portobellos and Spinach.”
This was a perk of sorts, not from the company but from himself. If you weren’t going to buy real estate with your mid six figure income, and your friend’s wife was trying to start a catering career, why not let her experiment on you? It was a little pricey — a delivered breakfast and dinner five days a week, paid for whether you used it or not, but it gave him more thinking time, and Nathan wasn’t going anywhere in his career. They had started the exact same week out of school at adjoining desks, ten years before. On some level, Tyler felt guilty about his own promotions. He felt as though this were sharing the wealth. He worked hard to make sure it didn’t come across as charity, but as a bargain, a win-win. “No, no, no,”Tyler said. “I’m stoked. I’m jazzed. Wolfgang, um, Hottie serving it up hot.”
“Wolfgang Hottie?” Julie asked.
Tyler was embarrassed. “Okay, I couldn’t think of any female chefs, and then I started saying ‘Wolfgang’ and I thought that might sound insulting so I stuck a ‘hottie’ on there.”
“Well,” Nathan said, grabbing her jean pocket. “She is hot. I agree.”
There were unforeseen problems with this arrangement though. Tyler was the customer and that meant Julie tried to please him. Tyler picked the menus and that meant Nathan and Julie ate what Tyler wanted. Nathan, in his own home, was letting Tyler make the dinner decisions, which didn’t matter, really, because if Julie didn’t have a customer, she would be making those decisions, foodie-snob that she was, but Tyler could tell it was becoming an issue with Nathan.
“Look, Jules!” Nathan said. “He’s the client. I get it. But he’s also Tyler.”
“Meaning you could ask me once in a while what I want for dinner?”
“I agree,” Tyler said, interceding. “I’m easy. I’ll go with the crowd.”
“It’s just that Tyler’s paying for it,” Julie said, “and I think you need sort of an ‘other’ in this gig, right? I need to get good at anticipating the ‘other.’ I’ve got to read the bride’s mind, don’t I?”
“I’m the bride now?” Tyler asked.
“Tyler’s the total bride,” Nathan said. “Everybody’s courting Tyler. We might lose him, Jules.”
“How?” Julie asked.
“Quiet,” Tyler said, trying to hide the slightest smile of satisfaction.
“See,” Nathan said. “He’s smiling. He knows what I’m talking about.”
“What?” Julie said. “Tell me.”
Nathan slid over and grabbed his wife by her knees.
“Have you ever known anyone, like, really famous?”
“Actually,” Julie said. “Um. Thinking…. No.”
“Tyler’s on his way up. In our industry, if the rumor gets started that you see through the tech clutter and all the app fashions? The guys who see through the fog and make predictions? Like Tyler has? At least three times now. They get wizard status. You should soak Tyler in while he’s here among the lowly.”
“Shut up,” Tyler said.
“I think it’s that F-n name of yours. Tyler Bardot. It sounds like you’re the Jean Paul Sartre of software engineering, or something.”
“It’s true,” Nathan said. “And you know it’s true.”
“Pure fantasy,” Tyler said, still trying not to smile and chuckling at his own vanity. It was, weirdly, a little true, but the glitter felt too good and dangerous at the same time.
“Seriously though,” Nathan said, looking a little glum. “It’s going to happen. When the multi-million dollar contract comes along, with the stock options and all that, you won’t be living in Del Rio Villas, Unit 27B. This halcyon time of walking with the gods, for us, Julie, is short lived.”
Julie frowned. “That will be sad.” She hit Tyler on the shoulder. “What do you want for dinner, champ?”
“YOU are the client.”
“Seriously,” Tyler said. “Go with me on this. Ask Nathan.”