Jeff Fleischer - Fiction
by Jeff Fleischer
He knocked at about a quarter to six on a Tuesday, just as Stacy had finished setting out all the ingredients for her pasta primavera and started to chop the green beans.
She didn’t hear him at first.
Since college, Stacy rarely cooked dinner without listening to the same playlist of Nineties hits. Her music had migrated from mix tape to burned CD to MP3 to streaming, and she swapped out a few songs at each step along that path (some had gone from ironic to embarrassing; others had taken the reverse journey). Still, most of her soundtrack remained unchanged since she was a nineteen-year-old aspiring doctor. When she shared a cramped two-bedroom townhouse with three girls she’d met in her freshman dorm.
Her speakers were set loud enough that they overpowered his first attempt. She didn’t even hear his next set of seven knocks (which arrived in the familiar shave-and-a-haircut arrangement). However, the tall black pot holding the noodles had started to boil past the top, forcing her to rush over and turn down the burner on the stove. When she did, she could see the top of his head through the square window on her front door. She lowered the music and jogged over to answer it.
Stacy and her husband lived in a safe neighborhood (the most common surprise visitors were schoolchildren selling magazines or chocolate bars), but she still had to unlatch a thin chain and turn the deadbolt before greeting the visitor.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Stacy didn’t recognize the man standing there. He was about her height, dressed in a loose-fitting suit that clearly hadn’t been ironed recently. He held a wooden clipboard with a thick pile of paper under the metal clamp.
“Yes, I’m looking for Stacy Montaigne.” As he said it, he took off his driver’s cap, revealing a mussed comb-over. “Would it be fair to guess that you are Ms. Montaigne?”
“Not since college; it’s been Mrs. Woodley a long time.” As she said it, she indicated the sign below the mailbox with that surname in gold plate. “How can I help you?”
“May I come in? It’s a bit of a long questionnaire, and some of the material might be a bit, personal, if you will. Though you can always decline to answer any part of it.”
Stacy had never been particularly comfortable inviting strangers into her home when she was alone (probably because her parents warned her many times against doing so in her childhood). Even though she spent most days writing alone in her dining-room office while Gary was at work, she almost never answered the door. Usually, the only knocks came from postmen dropping off packages. Unless it was wet outside, she would rather collect them from the porch than interrupt her routine. Still, the form in the clipboard made a census look like a bit of light reading.
As she scanned the neighborhood, the visitor continued, “If you prefer, we can speak out here. My name is Delroy Randle, and I’m here on behalf of Eastern’s alumni association.”
While he waited for a response, Randle took a silver pocket watch chained to his coat pocket and popped open the fob to check the time. He stared at it for a few seconds, giving Stacy a moment to make a decision.
Something in the man’s tone made Stacy believe that whatever he wanted to discuss was best broached inside. Along with that, his age (somewhere in his late sixties) and stature (too thin for his clothes) made him seem harmless enough. Not knowing how long this would take, she didn’t want to leave dinner cooking unattended, and wanted to have it ready before Gary got home.
“That’s okay; you can come in,” she said. “Just wipe your feet first.”
Randle did her one better and took off his shoes on the faded welcome mat, partially obscuring the grinning mascot who had greeted Gary nearly every day since his pledge week. While Stacy made a quick stop in the kitchen to turn off the stove, the visitor hung his suit jacket and hat on the coat rack (which Gary had argued in the store that nobody would ever use).
“Sorry, just had to make sure I didn’t overcook dinner,” Stacy said as she took a seat on the couch. “My husband will be home in about half an hour, and I want to have it ready.”
“Thank you, but I’m not very hungry,” Randle said. Stacy hadn’t offered him anything, but that subject seemed moot. Randle chose a spot on the love-seat across from her, and placed his open pocket watch on the coffee table between them. He took a pen from behind his ear and flipped up the first few pages of his questionnaire. “Mind if I begin by confirming some basic information?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “We have established that you are the former Stacy Montaigne.”
“The same one who attended Eastern from 1991 to 1996?”
“Still me. At least, that was me.”
“If I may say so, that’s an odd way to put it,” Randle replied, glancing again at his pocket watch. “What do you mean?”
“Just that it seems like a really long time ago now...I’d never been on my own before, or ever really traveled. Going to school was such a big adjustment. The first time I did my own laundry, I wound up turning half my clothes pink...”
Every time she paused, expecting him to ask another question, Randle just looked at her and smiled silently, and Stacy found herself filling the silence with more details. “Our machines in the dorm weren’t even coin operated. You had to buy these little plastic tokens, and sometimes they’d break, or you wouldn’t buy enough, and your clothes would get kind of musty because they didn’t dry all the way...”
After she detailed a few more laundry-related mishaps, Randle marked something on his clipboard with a pen (which brought her attention back to the moment). “I see you graduated with a bachelor of arts in biology.”
“BA in biology and comp lit. I was a double major, with a pre-med concentration.”
“Where and when did you attend medical school?”
“Oh, I never went.”
“Any particular reason?”
“My father was a chiropractor, and my mother was a dermatologist, so medicine was what they always wanted me to do. We all thought I’d be a surgeon, as a way for the next generation to do better than the last one, the whole American dream thing...” She found that she liked talking to Delroy Randle; he was either a good listener or exceptionally good at pretending to be one.
“You said you were married―”
"Yes, to Gary Woodley. We graduated Eastern the same year. He’s a year older than me, but it took him an extra semester to finish. I took five years, but he took five and a half.”
While Randle took notes, Stacy told him about how she met Gary at a mixer during her sophomore year, about their first date at the student union movie theater, about how they moved in together their last year at Eastern without their parents ever figuring it out.
“We had a dog for a while, but we had to put him down last year. He had cancer that spread to the bone marrow before we could catch it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve always been something of a dog person myself. Loyal, friendly animals, no guile there.”
“No children then?”
“No.” She paused there, staring at the open pocket watch. Breaking the awkward silence, she revealed something she’d never told anyone else. “I’m not able to have any. It doesn’t matter, though. Gary doesn’t want them anyway.”
“I see,” Randle said, jotting down more notes. “What does Gary do for a living?”
“He’s a consultant. He works in risk and resource management, and some analytics.” There wasn’t much about her husband’s work that she could really explain, other than people who made a lot less than him tended to get laid off when he showed up at a company. Stacy told Randle about how he ended up there. How in school, Gary wanted to be a teacher or maybe a chef, but decided he wanted to make more money (which she thought sounded embarrassing when said just minutes after she described their younger idealism).
“Who does he work for?” Randle said, glancing at the pocket watch, and then at the clock on the wall. He didn’t seem to be syncing them, and Stacy wasn’t sure what he was doing.
“Whoever hires him. He has a few dozen clients at the same time.”
“Which consulting firm, though? What types of clients?”
“His own company. He’s independent. He just consults with whoever. I don’t really know how it all works; like he always says, he makes it and I spend it.” Stacy found herself fidgeting nervously, which she hadn’t done before (probably because she realized how little she knew about the source of her lifestyle).
“If I may say so, based on this house, he must be making quite a lot of it. That is, it’s a very nice and well-appointed home. And what is it that you do for a living, with medicine off the table?”
Stacy blushed. “Oh, I don’t really work. I just take care of the house, make dinner. I do write a pop-culture blog that gets a few hundred readers. Woodley at Home? Do you know it?”
“I’m not much for technology,” Randle said with a shrug, holding up the pen and clipboard in his hands to emphasize his point (as if the pocket watch hadn’t already).
She explained how she had started writing the blog before they were even called that, when she would go to her dorm computer lab in the middle of the night and write short, sarcastic reviews of whatever movie or show she’d watched that week, started submitting them to the dorm newsletter, and eventually put them online herself. Her musings had traveled from a college server to Geocities to LiveJournal to MySpace before Gary bought her a permanent site and hired a designer for it.
Randle didn’t say much (probably because details like gigs of storage space flew over his head), and just focused on his pocket watch for most of her explanation.
“You said hundreds of people read this. How do they pay for it?”
“They don’t. I don’t make any money on it yet. Hopefully, I will one day, but like you said, Gary makes enough for us to live pretty well. Whatever I make will be extra.”
Randle, who had sat upright while taking most of his notes, leaned in and lowered his voice a bit. “Well, I believe that takes us to the most important portion of the survey. According to the school’s records, you’ve never made a single payment on your loans in all these years.”
“That’s true,” Stacy admitted. “Gary makes all the money, and his parents paid for school. I don’t have any income.”
“Yes, the records show you received an exception for economic hardship when you first graduated―”
“We were broke, barely making rent while Gary was doing internships. We had to borrow from his parents just to get by.”
“―but it’s hardly possible that economic hardship is still a factor here, given all this.” He made a sweeping gesture around the room (and Stacy had to admit he had a point). “I do not doubt it was a real concern when you were twenty-two. For some time, though, you must have been able to pay, just unwilling.”
Stacy began to fidget, visibly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken. “I don’t see why I should pay for something I don’t use. Eastern’s called a bunch of times, and I always tell them the truth, that I don’t work or use my education.”
“From what you’ve told me, it seems you gained quite a lot from your experience there.” Randle was calm, and Stacy found he still had a way of putting her at ease as he recapped some of what she’d told him. “You met your husband, learned to cook, learned to take care of your own place, learned to weblog.” He listed many more examples (underscoring just how many memories Stacy had shared in their sessions), most having little to do with academics.
“I already have all that. Like I said last time they called, what are they going to do, make me return my education?”
“Something like that,” Randle said. “That’s where I come in.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will soon enough.” With that, Randle checked the clock on the wall (not his own silver one), which showed it was nearly six-thirty. “I know you expect your husband back any minute, Mrs. Woodley, so I’ll show myself out. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and thank you for all the memories you’ve shared. We’ll put them to good use.”
Stacy wasn’t sure what to say as the strange man put his shoes back on and collected his jacket and hat. She instinctively rose to show him out, but Delroy Randle waved her off.
“Thank you, but no need to get up. Pardon me, I almost forgot the most important thing.” He grabbed the pocket watch that still sat open. “Can’t leave this behind.”
The instant the figure in the loose-fitting suit closed the fob on his watch, Stacy felt something change, as if she’d lost track of time. Randle thanked her again and left her home. From the window, she saw him walking down the street with his clipboard, making additional notes (and realized for the first time that he’d arrived on foot).
Stacy remembered that she had been making dinner when Randle knocked, and went back to the kitchen. She found a few piles of vegetables on the counter, but was at a loss for to how to prepare them. The stereo, which she’d turned down on her way to the door, played a series of unfamiliar tunes, though she found that she liked most of them.
A few minutes later, another man she didn’t recognize came to the door, claiming to be her husband. Only when he correctly described every photo over the mantle, and she saw his face matched several of them, did Stacy feel comfortable letting this man into her home, though nothing he said about their time together sounded familiar.