Recap: Lyle’s just arrived at a party being thrown by his old friend, Irene, and already Irene is lecturing him on his recent layoff and breakup. She tells him that before the night is over, she’s going to find an eligible young woman to introduce him to. “But I don’t want to ruin anyone’s evening by introducing myself,” Lyle says.
“Oh my god,” Irene said, her mouth dropping open. “I spoke too soon.”
“What?” Lyle frowned.
“A woman just came in from out back.”
“Who?” Lyle turned his head to look.
“Don’t look!” Irene said. “It’s Annabelle.”
“It’s Annabelle?” Lyle turned his head all the way. “Oh, good. That’s who I want. I pick her.”
Irene grabbed his wrist. “Don’t you dare. I promised Shep I’d keep you two apart. Besides, the universe doesn’t want you together.”
“Yeah, clearly. That’s why it put us in this situation where we’re practically guaranteed to run into each other.”
“I mean it, Lyle. Trust me. I know things about the universe that you never will.”
“I know the universe is interconnected and twisted. You taught me that.”
“Then take my advice and make yourself scarce. She’s coming this way. Hurry!” Irene pushed him in the back.
“Where am I supposed to go?” Lyle asked, hissing.
“Go out back, where Annabelle was. Tom’s barbecuing on the porch.”
“Can I grab my shoes if I’m going outside?”
Irene raised her fist. “Remember the story about the broken teeth?”
“They were rotten teeth, but the point’s taken. See you.” Lyle slipped into the crowd, turning himself sideways to slither past the people.
As he wormed through the swarms, he knocked into a woman’s back. She shrieked and spilled her wine.
“Oh my god!” she said. “My dress!”
“Your dress?” said her date. “Look at the carpet! They just had those steam-cleaned! Irene’s going to kill you!”
The woman spun around. “Who was that, anyway?”
Lyle ducked, charging toward the door like a jumped-up jackrabbit. As he slipped outside, the warm evening air hit him.
Unfortunately, so did the electric bug zapper, which hung near the doorway. He shrieked as it sizzled his scalp.
Swarms of people mingled on the deck, speaking with boisterous voices enhanced by alcohol. Strands of bead-like lights woven through the rafters cast muted pinprick glows, giving the scene a cozy, atmospheric feel.
Beyond the deck lay the lawn. A fire pit, ringed by rock, belched flame and heat and acrid smoke. Near the fire sat a ragtag group of college-aged kids. They, too, belched acrid smoke as they watched a shaggy minstrel strumming a worn guitar. His wobbly singing accompanied his clumsy chords. His voice was one that could awaken the nighttime spirits and make them glad they were dead.
Lyle spotted Tom at the far end of the deck. He stood in front of a massive, multi-grilled barbecue, sizzling an assortment of steaks that included sirloins, tenderloins, rib-eyes and, Lyle’s favorite cut of meat: hot dogs. He wore an oversized apron, clutching a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other. The hand holding the beer was way more animated.
A group surrounded Tom, laughing and talking and eyeing the meat (as the barbecuer himself was preoccupied with his beer). Lyle moved toward them, the cold deck freezing his socked feet.
A figure emerged from the darkness — a tall, hefty guy holding a beer. His face was round and sprouted with stubble.
“Lyle!” he repeated, his voice jolly and boisterous. “Is that you?”
Lyle squinted. “Yeah?”
“Come here, man! Come here!” The guy grabbed his hand, pumping it hard. “It is you, man! Lyle frickin’ Colane. How the hell you doing, brother? It’s been forever!”
“Yeah,” Lyle said, nodding. He rubbed his hand and grimaced. “It’s been years.”
“I was just thinking about you,” the guy said. “I’ve been wondering whatever became of you. And just like that, I run into you here — of all places. Can you believe it?”
“I can’t believe it,” Lyle said. “It’s unbelievable.”
“Damn right it’s unbelievable. It’s downright crazy. Absolutely insane!” The guy took a swig of beer. “So, man … what the hell have you been up to?”
Lyle shrugged. “Not much, I guess.”
“You ever imagine you’d run into me again?”
“It never crossed my mind — no.”
“How come you never tried to look me up?” the guy asked. “I’ve been around. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. You should have Googled me.”
“I’m not much of a Googler,” Lyle said.
“Well, hell, if you’re still in the Dark Ages, then pick up a phonebook. I’m in there, too. We could have hooked up years ago if you’d been on the ball.”
Lyle frowned. “I don’t get this. Are we picking up on a conversation we had in a previous life, or something?”
The guy leaned closer, peering at him. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
“Not a clue,” Lyle said. “Which precluded me from looking you up.”
“Oh, c’mon! Don’t tell me you don’t remember me!”
“I was trying my best not to tell you. I finally caved when you asked me outright.”
The guy motioned to himself. “Chad. You know, from journalism school?”
Lyle tilted his head. “Chad?”
“Yeah! You remember me, don’t you?”
“Did we have a class together?”
“Damn straight we did. Journalism 403: Introduction to Gonzo Journalism. Remember?”
“Oh.” Lyle shook his head. “That semester’s a little hazy.”
Chad laughed. “Amen, brother, amen. But I certainly remember you and your sorry face. Who could forget that pained, constipated expression you always wore? Always kissing up to your professors and agonizing over your homework. Man, you busted your butt the whole time I knew you. Everyone figured you were destined for great things. Did you ever get that job at the New York Times? I remember you saying that was your dream job.”
“Eh,” Lyle said. “Didn’t quite make it that far.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. I never saw you the whole time I worked there.”
Lyle frowned. “You worked for the New York Times?”
“Hell yeah, man. For five years, right after graduation. But I didn’t like the city, so I moved back to Nevada. I took a job with the Elko newspaper.”
Chad nodded. “Yeah. Lost it a year later, though. Recession, you know.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” Lyle said. “So you don’t work in media anymore?”
“Oh, no. I still work in media. I got a job as a production assistant for Channel 4. That’s where I’ve been ever since.”
“Oh.” Lyle’s face fell.
“Yeah, no way I could ever work in a different field,” Chad said. “Give me journalism, or give me death, right? Besides, I didn’t go to four years of J-school to end up unemployed.” He took another swig of beer. “So, how about you? What are you up to?”
“No kidding? What were you doing before?”
“I was an executive assistant.”
“What does that mean?”
Lyle frowned. “What do you mean, ‘what does that mean’?”
“Well, what did you do? Answer phones?”
“Well, yeah. I answered phones, typed correspondence, made travel arrangements — that kind of stuff.”
“So you were a secretary?”
“No.” Lyle’s nostrils flared. “I was an executive assistant. I assisted an executive.”
“Right. That makes you a secretary.”
“That wasn’t my official title.”
“No, but that’s what you were. You got to call it like it is, right? That’s one of the first rules they taught us in J-school: Don’t use a $5 word when a 10-cent one will do. Remember?”
Lyle glared. “I remember.”
“So you were a secretary.” Chad guzzled what remained of his beer, letting out a loud belch. “And now you’re unemployed?”
“And now I’m unemployed, yes.”
“Damn,” Chad said. “That’s too bad, man. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Like you said, ‘give me journalism or give me death,’” Lyle said. “And to tell you the truth, the latter looks more appealing every day.”