The Reply

As they were bumping north on Madison for the day’s last meeting, Allyn drew Reeves’s attention to a young woman standing in front of an office building entryway flanked by an art gallery on one side and a ladies and girls shop on the other. Allyn said she was a former tenant in an apartment his wife, Dee, owned in Chelsea. Dee had asked her to vacate because her niece had decided to move to New York.

“Now she’s saying unpleasant things about us. Would you mind if we let you out so you could discourage her from doing that?”

In his first year with Allyn, Reeve had met Dee twice over dinner, once the three of them at their townhouse on East 58th, another time a dinner for eight, also at the townhouse. Dee did some kind of curatorial work at the Met. She was beautiful in the way anorexics can be beautiful, her features glacially severe, her graying hair nonetheless abundant. She spoke in a low, hard-to-follow voice as if she was talking to herself, no one else, about the things that moved her, museum things, New York cultural things. Allyn let her murmur along.

He was a silent butler of a man, a large, strong man, but not a hard man. There was a softness about him. He’d gone bald early, which gave him a long run of not aging much from his twenties into his fifties, his smooth pate and sensuous mouth well-matched. He ended up quite handsome, looking like someone who knew exactly what he was doing even if he wouldn’t tell you what it was. This was the first time he’d ever asked Reeves to do anything involving Dee.

“What is her name?”

“Carla Jamison.”

“What about our meeting?”

“I’ll handle it.”

The driver eased the car over to the curb. Reeve paused a second to give Allyn the opportunity to expand on what to say to Carla Jamison. But Allyn wasn’t looking at Reeve leaving the car, much less turning his head to look back at Carla Jamison. He was looking straight ahead.

By the time Reeves rounded the back of the car, Carla Jamison wasn’t standing where she’d been. He assumed she’d gone into the art gallery. Stepping halfway through its entry door, he saw she hadn’t. Next, he approached the security desk in the foyer between the gallery and the clothing shop. The guard said no one had gone up to the offices in the last few minutes. That left the ladies and girls shop.

Inside, a glance at the clothing on tables, display racks, and hanging along the walls told him this was very conservative stuff. What kind of lady wanted her daughter to be dressed like a little me? Wealthy ladies, he gathered. Mothers and grandmothers buying things for themselves as much as for the hipless girls scattered about, head-high above piles of sweaters and blouses. These clothes, he began to see, were not as out-of-fashion as he first took them. They were pre-preppy, preppy, and post-preppy, taking a girl from the sportiness of waiting to get on the playing field to the sportiness of being on the playing field to the sportiness of being a woman in the stands.

A saleswoman approached him with an amused expression on her face, obviously suspecting he had no idea how to shop in a store like this. He held up his left hand in a stop signal.

“Thanks, I’m fine.”

“Please, let me help you if I may.”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

She relented although anyone could see that he wasn’t fine. He’d just caught sight of Carla Jamison. She wasn’t holding up skirts for a customer to admire or pressing pins between her lips with a tape measure around her neck. She was seated at a table administering hearing tests to a line of girls and two women, one evidently a grandmother. Her table was draped with blue felt on which Price Hearing was printed in gold lettering. So, this was a promotional screening, not social service, but still, Carla Jamison looked like a paragon of humanity’s best—dressed in the store’s throwback style, and so pretty, her eyebrows straight, her eyes and nose and mouth small, the face of a fox.

She gently placed headphones on the girls, pausing sympathetically once she had done so as if to say, “I know it’s dumb-looking but it’ll only take a minute.” She let the women put on the earphones by themselves, not wanting to muss their hairdos. Young or old, she issued the same instruction: “When I say, ‘Can you hear this?’, you reply yes or no. That’s it. Just reply yes or no.” She then dialed through the one-minute test, saying, “Can you hear this?” to which the girls replied, “Yes” or “No,” and turned out fine, but both women, to their consternation, did have some hearing loss. Their replies were too full of “No’s” that should have been “Yes’s.” The grandmother accepted a glossy blue Price Hearing brochure and put it in her handbag without looking at it. The younger woman, daughter at her side, consulted extensively with Carla to be sure she understood the gravity of her loss. Carla emphasized that this was just a screening, not definitive.

Reeves decided to butt in before Carla administered the next test and make such a modest request that he’d get her cooperation. He asked if he could have twenty seconds of her time.

She was annoyed—a fox who could bite—but nodded courteously. “What is it?”

“Allyn Cassidy understands that he and his wife, his wife in particular, I guess—Dee—have inconvenienced you. He asked that I apologize.” Of course, Allyn hadn’t asked him to apologize, but Reeve didn’t see how he could avoid saying he had, given what he would say next. “He also asks that you stop saying unpleasant things about him.”

Carla whispered, “Who are you, a private detective?”

“No, I work with him.”

For him, you must mean.”

“Sure, for him.”

“Doing his dirty work.”

“He’s my boss.”

“Well, this isn’t his business. It’s Dee’s, she’s the procuress.”

That stopped Reeve. Obviously, it was a premeditated description, not an offhand insult.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Maybe you should before you get involved in their affairs.”

She didn’t have to say this so acidly to make him realize she was right. He didn’t know much about Allyn in a personal sense and less about Dee. The only substantive thing Dee had said to him—it seemed substantive by her tone of voice, though it was a bit of advice he couldn’t follow—was that he shouldn’t let Allyn work him too hard.

“He’ll pay you well, but he’ll burn you out. After all,” she added, “everyone has needs. Allyn knows that as well as anyone.”

This was when the three of them dined alone, the first dinner. Allyn didn’t take issue with her, although it was a provocative comment. Despite her scarecrow body, Dee seemed to be talking about sex and the things that went along with it—those needs, that was the implication. Reeve didn’t know how to respond and ended up now meeting Carla Jamison’s small fierce eyes, not knowing what to say once again.

He shrugged as dismissively as he could and returned to the sidewalk, letting physical motion substitute for thought until he stood midway between the building and the curb where his thoughts overwhelmed him. Did Dee rent her apartment to women she permitted Allyn to pursue? Was that the basis of the unpleasant comments Allyn wanted stopped?

He stood on the sidewalk longer than he should have because, having finished work, Carla Jamison came out of the ladies and girls shop and walked right up to him.

“Are you still intent on bothering me?”

“No, I’m not, and I’m sorry about this. I really am.”

“So now the apology comes from you, not Allyn and Dee?”

“Look, you’re right, I don’t know what this is all about.”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“He told me to do what I did. No explanation why.”

“Do you want to know?”

Should I want to know?”

Yielding to the pedestrian flow, they had taken a few steps side-by-side. Reeve wasn’t sure if her eyes were tearing because of the cold, gusting air or emotion. Either way, he couldn’t help admiring the way she ignored her discomfort. Something nasty had transpired, but she wasn’t giving in to it.

“All I know is I would not like to be you. You’re associated with scumbags.”

He risked a slight smile, suggesting he would keep his own counsel on that point, and then risked a little more by trying to talk his way beyond confrontation.

“You’re a hearing specialist?”

She made a sound, something like pah. “No, I’m a marketer. What hearing specialist would be doing screenings in a clothing store? Next week I’ll be in another store.”

“This is something you like doing?”

“Every once in a while, I seem to help someone. I like that.”

Since he’d come to New York, Reeve had learned that if he had an inclination—call it a need, though not just a sexual need, unless everything was sexual—he should move quickly or it would streak away. That was New York to him, speed. Allyn himself said yes and no to things more quickly than anyone he’d ever met; he did business like a professional tennis player; whatever you hit at him, he’d hit back the second it landed on his desk.

“Would you like to have a drink?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m perfectly serious.”

“Now you’re the pimp?”

“What?”

“You heard me.” She stopped and made him stop, as if to let him read her lips if he wanted to play deaf. “Or maybe you do want to know what this is all about.”

He said, “Okay,” not as in, “Yes, I do,” but as in, “Go on,” expressing willingness, not eagerness.

“All right: I was in Brooklyn and wanted to be in Chelsea, but I wasn’t 100% sure, so when I heard about Dee’s apartment, I agreed to month-to-month. Then Allyn appeared to check on things. He said he was Dee’s husband. Okay, fine. Then he came a second time, and we had a glass of wine and we hit it off. So, he’s prowling, but I liked him, and he liked me—at least I thought he did—but then he spent one whole night with me, and the next morning she showed up and gave me notice. Apparently, I had taken things too far. Dinner, okay. Saturday walks in the park, okay. But not spending all night, not falling in love. So, yes, I’ve said unpleasant things. I said them all over the building.”

“What did Allyn say?”

“Allyn didn’t say anything. He never came back.”

“That’s so…cold.”

“Yes, it’s cold, and it’s cold right here, too, if you don’t mind.”

“Then let’s—”

She opened her mouth as if to let him have it but drew in a breath and asked quietly, “What’s your name?”

“Reeve.”

“First or last?”

“First.”

“Okay, Reeve, do you really want to get involved with your boss’s ex-girlfriend?”

“Whoa, I said a drink.”

They found a bar in what once had been a basement, perhaps a coal cellar, now elegant in a chipped brick, brutally intimate way. The waitress apparently saw something was up, so she seated them at a small table off by themselves.

Carla asked for a vodka martini, Reeve a single malt. He often drank a few single malts after work but usually by himself in an apartment Dee had not, fortunately, provided for him. Things always were better after he’d finished his first glass; that was the one that counted, cushioning the silence of being alone, frequently at nine or ten at night, exhausted from nonstop work, most weekends, too. Anticipating this palliative effect, he listened as Carla continued on about Allyn, so successful in his niche, rich, really rich, but not happy, an observation Reeve hadn’t made himself. Not happy? Reeve interjected. No, Allyn simply was a man who smiled more than he laughed. That’s all. It was like the dog that didn’t bark, he supposed. What no one noticed, what went unremarked, what people never picked up on.

“You mean men never pick up on,” Carla said, “whereas women notice everything. Dee judging me when we met, for instance: Here I was wearing someone else’s ideas of clothes and hoping to get my hands on her old apartment. What did that say about me? It said I wasn’t a threat. So, she was okay with Allyn fooling around with me. I’d be perfect for him.”

“You really believe that?”

“Yes, I believe that. Until she decided to put an end to it.”

Reeve guessed she was his age, twenty-seven, and wondered what he wasn’t noticing now, even amidst everything he was noticing. Noticing how pretty she was, noticing how angry she was, noticing how willing she was to tell him these embarrassing things.

She asked him about himself, though not in a way that was especially polite. As she put it, what did he do for Allyn when he wasn’t doing something like this? Reeve ignored her barb and answered that he helped Allyn buy and sell tangibles—factories, forests, shopping malls—for wealthy families that didn’t trust stocks and bonds.

“Every so often, he hires someone like me as his sidekick, sometimes two, but it’s only me plus some staff now.”

“Are you making a lot of money?”

“I get a small percentage of large deals.”

“Like, how much?”

“Not much by the hours I put in.”

“He works you to death while he’s out enjoying himself?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way until I met you.”

“Does he like you?”

“I hadn’t thought about it that, either.”

“Apparently, you don’t think about much.”

No? It seemed to him he thought all the time. He thought about revenues, projections, and taxes. He thought about markets and competition and financing. He thought about deadlines, meetings, and clients. In his first year out of business school, he made $360,000, which apparently she’d like him to tell her.

“Allyn and I get along fine as far as I know.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Has he said that?”

“He’s never mentioned you.”

“Then why would you say he doesn’t like me if he’s never mentioned me?”

“If he did, he never would have asked you to do something like this.”

“It was spur of the moment. We were going up Madison. He just happened to see you there.”

Carla sipped her martini. She had ordered it dry. She was dry, too. Unhurried, the way she was unhurried administering hearing tests, this seemingly another one. “Don’t be ridiculous. He knows where I’m working. If I wasn’t outside, he would have sent you inside.”

“How does he know where you’re working?”

“I can send him texts, can’t I? I can leave voicemails, can’t I? I can make sure he knows how it felt when no one in Chelsea was surprised I’d been told to leave, can’t I? They’d seen it before, they’ll see it again.”

“Does he reply to your messages?”

Carla cast a look at the people around the bar. People like them in their twenties and thirties, but none of them equally enmeshed in their discussions, none needing to be exiled to a corner where each could hear every syllable of what the other said. “Reeve… that’s your name again, right?”

“Yep, still Reeve.”

You’re the reply.”

“Me?”

“And he won’t want you around after this, believe me. The unpleasant things I say about those two are going to be the unpleasant things you think about them from now on, and they’ll know it and neither of them will like it. Time for you to move on, too.”

It felt as though she had effortlessly alerted him to the fact that he hadn’t noticed himself not barking, either. He had thought he smiled, laughed, and was happy, but he hadn’t really smiled, laughed and been happy. He had hired his life out to Allyn, and by extension, to Dee. And Carla was right, they wouldn’t want him around anymore. He’d done his job the same way she had done hers.

She tipped her empty martini glass sideways, drawing his attention to the fact that it was empty. Reeve scanned for the waitress to give her “another round” sign, then stopped himself, turning his gesture into a summons for the check.

“Not one more?” Carla asked.

“I missed lunch. I need something to eat.”

“Want to go have dinner somewhere?”

There were two options, yes and no. Instinctively, he was inclined to say no, but given what he’d heard, what was the point? There wasn’t any point anymore. So, he said yes.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Earle lives in North Carolina after a diplomatic career that took him to Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. More than 100 of his stories have appeared in print and online literary journals. Vine Leaves Press published his story collection She Receives the Night in May 2017. He has published three novels and two books of nonfiction.

 

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